The Power of Misperception

While having dinner in a restaurant the other night, I overheard a woman at the table behind me verbally scanning the menu and discussing what she no longer feels is safe and to eat. On her list was beef ("contaminated with mad cow"), spinach ("contaminated with E. coli"), chicken ("possible salmonella poisoning") and all seafood ("filled with carcinogenic toxins").

I started thinking about consumer misconceptions, which was timely, considering that the very next day I received an email from a member of the poultry industry pointing out that I too had made an incorrect assumption in my last column. I had mistakenly mentioned that one possible rationale for vegetarianism was the desire to avoid hormones injected into poultry and cattle. While federal regulations allow the use of certain hormones on growing cattle and sheep, hormones are illegal in poultry production.

Consumer perceptions - whether true or false - are powerful in the food industry. The 2006 Monterey County spinach recall, prompted by E. coli contamination, lead to estimated losses as high as $100 million. While a portion of the economic loss can be attributed to product loss in terms of recalled products, the ripple effects of the spinach scare facilitated a costly decline in sales for both the spinach and leafy greens industry in general.

A recent survey of consumers (commissioned by Deloitte Consulting) reported that 57 percent of Americans say they have stopped eating a particular food, temporarily or permanently, as a result of a recent recall.

While the food industry seems to be doing its best to battle misconceptions and set the record straight for consumers, it seems that a significant portion of their marketing efforts are centered around defending, rather than promoting, their products. How do you have time to prove that your chicken tastes better than your competitor's when so much of your time is devoted to merely proving that your chicken won't give consumers salmonella, bird flu, or an increased resistance to antibiotics?

Some suggest that there needs to be better clarification at the federal level regarding specific affected products during a recall, as well as a more concise follow-through on the progress of the recall. Others claim it is just a question of putting more information and educational materials into the hands of consumers - and one way to accomplish this would be to make sure media outlets are passing on accurate information.

I'm interested in hearing what your companies are doing to assuage consumer fears and alleviate misconceptions. Please email me with your thoughts/ideas.

And by the way, the woman in the restaurant eventually settled on pasta in a "fresh, chunky marinara sauce" - it took everything in my power to resist telling her about the tomato recall.