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An Era of Informed Food Consumers

An Era of Informed Food Consumers

While it is easy to ridicule those who would hold sellers of hamburgers responsible for heart attacks, the underlying issue is a real one.

The trial lawyers are finally starting to make the restaurant chains nervous.

While the million dollar lawsuits charging that fast food eateries are responsible for the heart attacks and other health problems of their "innocent" customers are still viewed by most of the public as frivolous, even the remote possibility of a huge payoff has litigants salivating and restaurant operators worried.

The very idea that the attorneys just might prevail at some point in convincing a jury that the "victims" became "addicted" to hamburgers, French fries and other "dangerous" foods has got the industry embarked on a major public relations defensive.

All of us had better hope such special interest activists don’t make headway in this contest. We have a lot to lose if providers of food are somehow held responsible for the eating habits and lifestyles of their customers.

On the other hand, we’re clearly entering an era in which consumers are more knowledgeable and want to be more informed about the content of the foods they purchase and eat. Helping them do this is a responsibility the industry needs to take more seriously.

If we don’t, we will likely pay a heavy price in terms of eventual regulation. And nutritional analysis information is only the beginning of what consumers today are demanding to know.

Thirty years ago it may have been acceptable to not indicate that a particular food product contained small amounts of peanut, whey, and similar ingredients. Now it is not. Today, it’s generally accepted that consumers with serious allergies to such ingredients have a right to know which foods contain them.

Consider food irradiation, a processing option many of us have long believed could be an important option for manufacturers seeking to reduce potential food safety risks in products susceptible to certain kinds of bacterial and parasitic contamination.

Irradiation has been endorsed for decades by responsible groups ranging from the ADA and AMA to the ACF and World Health Organization. In October, we were encouraged to learn that at the end of this year USDA will finally begin to allow companies to make irradiated meat available to schools in the national school lunch program. It is a major step forward in terms of ensuring food safety for this segment.

Still, we had better get used to the idea that some consumers remain adamantly opposed to the food irradiation process. They shouldn’t be allowed to use fear-mongering to keep the rest of us from taking advantage of irradiation’s very real benefits. But it is hard to argue they do not have the right to know which products are processed in this way so they can avoid them if they wish to.

The new organic food labeling rules that went into effect last month are yet another case in point (see related story on page 12 of this issue). Once just an obscure category of products sold in health food stores, organic foods have clearly entered the consumer mainstream in recent years (just ask any college FSD who has watched organic soy milk and similar products fly off the shelf in campus c-stores).

With the new USDA certification rules, consumers and sellers now have at least a common vocabulary and sense of certainty about which foods meet an accepted organic standard and which do not. Yet this is still more information that has to be communicated somehow.

In the wings? Growing concerns by health professionals about the negative impact antibiotics in animal feed are having on our ability to treat disease in humans will likely make this an issue we will hear a lot more about very soon. A host of similar issues are out there.

But finding reasonable ways to make available the breadth of information consumers want, without unduly burdening operators, retailers and manufacturers, is going to be one heck of a problem for the industry to solve.

While it is easy for many of us to ridicule those who would hold sellers of hamburgers responsible for heart attacks, the bigger and underlying issue is a real one. How do we as an industry help the consumer become more informed about the ingredients, nutritional content and processing of the food he or she eats, in a way that is reasonably convenient to use and reasonably cost effective to implement?

Clearly, all the information that may conceivably be wanted can’t possibly be printed on every product label or listed on every menu. It is much more likely that the use of Internet clearinghouse sites, in-restaurant kiosks with nutritional and ingredient look-up functions and similar technological solutions will be the only way to "open the books" to the customer.

Rather than falling back on ridicule, the foodservice industry should put its resources to work on finding a reasonable way to address this issue sooner rather than later. It is not going to go away.

TAGS: Management
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