The Food Industry’s Confidence Issue

April 13, 2015

I’ve been reading a lot lately about consumer confidence (or lack of) in our food supply. Whether it’s a fear of contamination due to recent recalls affecting trusted brands (i.e. Blue Bell’s recall) or distrust of GMOs, it seems like everything related to the food we eat is up for debate.

National Geographic had a fantastic article in their March issue about how the general public has started to doubt science, studies and proven scientific facts, from fluoridation (adding small amounts of fluoride to our water to improve dental health) to climate change. This skepticism has now turned to our food sources, with many approaching the mass food market with distrust.

According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, the majority of the general public (57 percent) says that genetically modified (GM) foods are generally unsafe to eat, while only 37 percent say such foods are safe. That’s compared to 88 percent of scientists from the American Association for the Advancement of Science who say GM foods are generally safe. The gap between citizens and scientists in seeing GM foods as safe is 51 percentage points. Some might see that gap more like a river.

National Geographic points out the Internet has played a major role in all of this:

“Meanwhile the Internet makes it easier than ever for…skeptics and doubters of all kinds to find their own information and experts. Gone are the days when a small number of powerful institutions — elite universities, encyclopedias, major news organizations, even National Geographic — served as gatekeepers of scientific information. The Internet has democratized information, which is a good thing. But along with cable TV, it has made it possible to live in a ‘filter bubble’ that lets in only the information with which you already agree.”

A recent example of everyday folks reigning over science on the Internet is that of the Food Babe. If you’re not familiar, the Food Babe is Vani Hari. According to her website bio, she used to eat a lot of junk food which landed her in the hospital, where she had a revelation to start living a healthy life. Now, she has a really popular blog where she investigates “what is really in our food, how is it grown and what chemicals are used in its production.” She says, “I had to teach myself everything. As I began to learn more, I was no longer duped by big business marketing tactics, confused by lengthy food labels, and it became easier for me to live in this over-processed world.”

The high level of trust placed in self-proclaimed experts like the Food Babe (who doesn’t actually have any formal training or education in food science) and media personalities like Dr. Phil (who isn’t actually an MD…he has his PhD in psychology) is problematic for those who are actually the authority in their fields. When consumers are listening more to celebrities than scientists, it’s nearly impossible to communicate in a transparent way and build credibility. People have developed an emotional tie to these personalities, which creates a strange form of trust. Scientists, on the other hand, are strangers and met with doubt simply because they’re unknown.

The food industry has a real challenge on its hands. Where do they start when consumers are more apt to follow someone with no formal science education than the most credible subject matter experts — actual scientists?

We use Cialdini’s Core Motives model because it’s one of the most accessible persuasion tools in social science, and it’s supported by years of research and subsequent field testing.

Cialdini’s model asks the user to select one of three goals of your outreach work: build trust, reduce uncertainty or motivate to act. In my opinion, the food community needs to reduce consumer uncertainty. To do that, we look at two outreach tactics in the model: Consensus and Authority.

Using the model, we can see the issue lies with the Authority. Self-made celebrities have established themselves as the authority on food sourcing and safety, and the food community needs to combat these misperceptions with their own credible, sound authority figures. And who better to talk about food science than the ones studying it — the food scientists themselves?

If the food community can communicate the science they are using to make decisions about what we eat — rather than the inflammatory sizzle we see in the media — then they have a chance to make an impact. The outcome goal shouldn’t be blind faith, but rather pushing consumers to look beyond the fear factor and seek out sources on both sides of the story.

Originally published at on April 13, 2015.

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