Natural Foods Merchandiser

Food safety: Where do we go from here?

It hasn't been a great year when it comes to food safety. Terms like E. coli and salmonella have become far too familiar, and "Made in China" might as well be a warning label. In almost rapid succession, shoppers have learned to consume lettuce, tomatoes, pot pies, spinach, peanut butter (and more) with increasing trepidation.

In response, Congress and the Bush administration are looking into new rules and regulations that could put more of the onus on companies when it comes to imported goods. In addition, these rules give new recall powers to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.

Yet there is so much more to the story and so much more to the challenge facing the food industry.

The nonstop barrage of headlines and stories creates a kind of relentless drumbeat that each day seems to erode consumers' faith in foods they buy. A study of shopper attitudes conducted by the Food Marketing Institute earlier this year found a dramatic drop in confidence in food safety for supermarkets and restaurants.

There's an old Latin proverb worth keeping in mind when it comes to food safety. It translates, roughly, as follows: "Trust, like the soul, never returns once it goes." The erosion of trust needs to be addressed with swift and sure action and clear communication to shoppers.

To some, that might sound frightening. The discussion on food safety among retailers, suppliers and consumers needs to take on a new depth and focus aimed at reassuring skittish shoppers about all the steps the industry is taking, plus all the knowledge consumers need. Food safety is a continual process from the farm all the way to the family table. Throughout that journey, no step is unimportant.

Food safety, it seems to us, needs to be thought about in both a strategic and tactical way. Strategic in terms of the large steps industry members must take together to address this problem, and tactical in terms of the bits of information that must form the basis for new communications and trust building. Of course, it's a hard topic to discuss and hardly sounds like the makings of marketing. But as stores increasingly prepare items for immediate consumption, building this foundation of trust becomes ever more critical.

As the scope of food safety expands, so does the importance of this issue. Clear communication of emerging trends helps the entire industry stay in lockstep with consumer wants and goals—sometimes it even helps shape them. Think about nutrition and the emphasis placed on trans fats, for example, in recent years. Prior to all the attention, trans fats were hardly seen as a problem of such enormity. Today, these fats are demonized and are rarely seen on a shelf anywhere.

As one retail CEO told us, "If we tell consumers over and over that trans fats will kill them, pretty soon that evolves from being a nutrition issue to being a food-safety issue." Safe food is food that is good to eat.

Similarly complex issues dot the horizon. For instance, shoppers have increasing interest in sustainability and in buying food from local sources for a host of reasons. Yet many shoppers don't really understand what types of products really provide the best benefits to the environment, their health or their families. Clear communication from the industry should be part of the discussion along with unbiased investigation of the steps all companies can and should take.

These are complex issues, to be sure, but they go hand-in-hand with an increasingly complex world. Help your shoppers understand that complexity and your messages can build trust and loyalty.

Kevin Coupe is the founder and Content Guy of, to which Michael Sansolo, the former senior vice president of the Food Marketing Institute, is a regular contributor. They are partners in a new (and for the moment, mysterious) enterprise called The Coupe-Sansolo Project. They can be reached at [email protected], and [email protected].

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 12/p.28

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