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Food knowledge gap needs to be narrowed (commentary)

Food knowledge gap needs to be narrowed (commentary)

THE European horse meat scandal is just too big to cover in a single column (I'm guessing we'll be talking about it for a long time).

My previous discussion focused primarily on the repercussions for consumer trust from finding horse meat in product labeled as ground beef (Feedstuffs, Feb. 25). The scandal draws attention to the ever-increasing importance of the food system's relationship with consumers. Seeing how that plays out on the business side, though, will take time.

The initial public attention and media focus will instead center around identifying culprits and assigning blame. The blame game isn't surprising; it's a huge scandal that's receiving worldwide attention. That alone serves as a partial, short-term public relations fix to help ease consumer angst, and for a while, that's an interesting diversion.

On one hand, government blames private industry. Food companies are accused of being unwieldy, too influential in policy matters and too zealous in their pursuit of profit.

On the other hand, the food industry points its finger at government, charging that regulatory agencies have been asleep at the switch and should have suspected fraudulent behavior far sooner than they did.

However, when the public back-and-forth begins to fade away, we're still left with the need to re-establish long-term consumer confidence.

Consumer Intelligence research indicates that nearly one in five adults in Britain have already cut back on their meat purchases, but worse yet, nearly two-thirds of respondents said the horse meat scandal has made them have less trust in ALL food labels.

As noted last month, "That brings us around to the long-term fallout -- namely, implications for consumer perception."

The horse meat scandal has made consumers feel duped and breached their trust.

Right now, there's no real direct line of communication between the food value chain and consumers to counteract the occurrence. The void typically gets filled by the general media, and we all know the deficiencies associated with that; it's neither efficient nor effective when needing direct, timely contact with consumers. That will have to change over time.

Over the long run, the most important thing that needs to occur is that the food system needs to implement systems that convey genuine transparency and open communication with consumers about where food comes from. That's the only way to re-establish some trust in the food system among consumers in Europe, and that has ripple effects here in the U.S., too.

Each and every stakeholder in the food production value chain will have to become increasingly versatile and willing to share accountability to meet end user stipulations.

That ultimately means a serious commitment to tightening up the supply chain by transitioning toward more long-standing, dedicated supply chain relationships that involve performance-based contracts. That's the only way to ensure that integrity is maintained and communicated for all types of product offerings.

Each of these events culminates with broader questions about where food comes from. If nothing else, the horse meat scandal demonstrates the need to narrow the gap between what we know and what we think we know. Closing that gap is the best means of establishing direct communication channels with consumers.

No doubt, when the urgency is over, some will still discount threats of any future confidence-challenging events, saying such things as, "This won't ever happen again."

That's an easy position to assume. After all, the risk is hard to define, but that's a mistake. Taking a wait-and-see strategy protects only the status quo while still leaving food equity and consumer trust at risk.

*Dr. Nevil C. Speer is with Western Kentucky University and serves on the board of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, a national organization devoted to engaging livestock producers and livestock health professionals in developing solutions for issues in the livestock industry.

Volume:85 Issue:09

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