The Spotlights Glare As Ingredients Take Center Stage

Back in the day, you could sell tons of food by convincing consumers in a mindless but compelling way that it was, as Armour did with its hot dogs, fun to eat. Not very many of us were questioning what went into those products. Today, not only is that information readily available, once people start talking about it, it seems to spread like pink slime (which, until a few weeks ago, most of us probably thought of as the arch-villain in a ’50s sci-fi flick.)

"America's favorite emotion is righteous indignation,” Marc Smith, director of the Social Media Research Foundation, tells the Wall Street Journal’s Marc Bussey this morning in a piece that delves into “what exactly fueled the firestorm over what some call ‘lean finely textured beef’ and others call ‘pink slime’?”

What Bussey sees is “a troubling mix of industry intransigence, uninformed consumers and a megaphone-toting media -- social and otherwise.” And, Bussey points out, “we're in a new environment in which noncorporate actors can craft compelling messages and get extraordinary mind share. If it didn't happen on Jon Stewart, maybe it just didn't happen

."It’s not just about pink slime. It’s also about, for example, red food coloring, as Starbucks has learned.

“Bugging Out: Vegetarians Upset With Starbucks’ Use of Beetle Extract,” reads the Time headline. But vegetarians are not the only ones who are upset that the ever-expanding coffee purveyor uses crushed cochineal beetles in its Strawberries & Crème Frappuccino and strawberry smoothies. It’s also the hordes of the squeamish who aren’t convinced by the company’s nutritionally correct effort to avoid “artificial dyes.” 

Meanwhile, none other than the Department of Homeland Security has issued a report that would have us believe that “food fraud” –- which it defines as “as any substitution, addition, tampering or misrepresentation of ingredients for profit” -- is more rampant than most of us good citizens would believe. Who’da thunk it?

The study of 1,305 academic articles and media reports compiled by researchers at the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention and published in the April issue of the Journal of Food Science finds that the most common food fraud ingredients are olive oil, milk, honey, saffron, orange juice, coffee and apple juice, according to a story by MSNBC’s Rob Neill

“There is a general sense that food fraud is a major global problem for the food industry,” Jeff Moore, one of the researchers, tells Neill. “But no one knows the size of the problem. No one has collected and compiled all the information in the public domain on this topic.”

Contributing to the consumers newly enlightened state are apps such as Fooducate (for iOS and Android devices) that allow consumers to scan barcodes and learn if a product contains sketchy ingredients. The app, which was developed by “dietitians and concerned parents” actually rates foods on an A to D scale (A+ is reserved for local, organic products; F is not used because “if it fills your tummy, ANY food has served an important service") and suggests alternative brands that it deems healthier. 

According to the Fooducate website, “you get to see the stuff manufacturers don't want you to notice,” such as:

  • excessive sugar
  • tricky trans fats
  • additives and preservatives
  • high fructose corn syrup
  • controversial food colorings
  • confusing serving sizes
  • and more...”

This is not an issue that is going to go away. Once the information gets out, consumers today have both the means and the media to craft their own compelling messages, such as this “Eat Meat & Die” infographic featured in Fast Company recently.

The food industry would be smart to heed Bussey’s observation in the Journal that “transparency has its virtues, and a bit more of it from companies early on might have averted the [“pink slime”] problem -- or at least damped the panic. This week beef producers belatedly said they're considering labeling the beef that contains LFTB. The idea is simple. Tell consumers what they're buying. Give them an option. Let them make the choice.”

Of course, the choice has to be clear. As the New York Times’ Stephanie Strom reveals in a piece about a lawsuit filed by Fresh Del Monte against Del Monte Foods, semantics can get in the way of transparency –- particularly among grownup former siblings. 

“Fresh Del Monte charges that Del Monte Foods breached the contracts between them by selling various cut and prepared fruit products under the names Orchard Select, Fruit Naturals and SunFresh,” Strom writes. It “argues that by selling those products in the produce section -- sometimes with the words ‘must be refrigerated’ on the labels -- Del Monte Foods is misleading and confusing consumers, who may mistake the contents of the packages for fresh fruits.”

The attorney for Fresh Del Monte says, “We’re talking about things that have this carefully contrived perception of freshness to deliberately confuse people.” The attorney for Del Monte Foods says it’s all “sour grapes,” pointing out to jurors who are now deliberating on a verdict, “We beat them in the market. Their product just doesn’t sell.”

Happy holidays! Eat well -- and wisely.


Originally published in Marketing Daily, April 6, 2012. 

© Copyright Thom Forbes, 2010 - 2017