Market View: The Food and Beverage Industry Needs a Fact-Checker

Watchdogs can set political candidates straight; can they combat false anti-food comments on the Internet?

By John Stanton, Contributing Editor

While following the political debates and the election commercials, one of the things that caught my attention was the “fact-checking” organizations. Whether they're affiliated with the TV networks or are independent groups, these fact-checkers dig deep into the statements the candidates make and try to decipher the extent to which they are true or false. Then the results are publicized.

This made me think about all the comments that appear on the Internet about food and beverage, most of which are negative. Unfortunately, consumers seem to attach a great deal of credibility to anything on the Internet. There was even a TV commercial that mocked this new phenomenon.

It seems to me some independent organization funded by the food industry (but remaining independent) should look at each and every Internet posting and respond with “the truth.”

This would not be easy because of the large number of comments that can be found on the Internet regarding food. For example, when I searched “rBST free” I got about 115,000 results. A large portion of these were what I would call “anti-rBST.” But wherever possible, “the facts” should be sent directly to the people writing the comments or articles as well as being posted publicly.

While I’m clearly a “food industry guy,” I do know some of the things we do may not be in the best interest of consumers. And when that is the case, the independent fact-finding group should say so. I also know there are huge numbers of people writing on the Internet about various aspects of food, food ingredients, food additives, etc., but I believe each one needs to have some response.

The food industry for the most part is ignoring all of these comments or treating them much too casually. I remember years back when Procter & Gamble was being accused of some sort of evil background. At the time I was consulting with P&G and casually mentioned I had heard the rumor. very quickly, I was questioned by P&G personnel, who asked who had told me this and under what circumstances. When I asked them why, they told me they go after each and every rumor monger to “set them straight about the truth.”

I was amazed at the thoroughness of not only their investigation but their follow-up. Someone told me he thought of this as putting out a fire. If you leave just a few embers burning, they have the potential to start the fire all over again.

There are two big obstacles to this “pie in the sky” idea. First, what is the truth? Many of the issues that are written about may not be 100 percent true or untrue. This will take some time and effort to determine the facts. But there should be nothing wrong with expressing both the positive and negative.

An example might be GMOs. To my limited knowledge there has not been a single person who has died, been made sick or had any other negative medical effect from GMOs. On the other hand, it may be also true we don’t yet know exactly how these GMO foods will affect consumers in the future. If the facts seem to express we actually don’t yet know, but have no reason to believe it could happen, that should be made clear as well.

The second big obstacle is who will be the fact checkers? We know it can’t be the food companies, although they can clearly be a source of information. We know it can’t be the consumer public interest groups. And it certainly can’t be the government, as they are probably trusted less than the previous two groups I mentioned, and in my opinion for good reason.

I would propose a separate institute be created and funded by the food industry, but remain absolutely independent of the food industry. I know it might be a difficult pill to swallow for many food companies, and they may not want to fund something they, their PR people or lawyers can’t control.

I think the institute should be staffed by recognized scientists who will provide oversight and approve any statements that might come from this institute. However, the bulk of the staff would be young scholars who may be looking for a position where they can dig as deeply as they like into issues that seem to be affecting people’s eating habits and their health. (Can I say “young people,” or have I violated some law dealing with age discrimination?)

This may be a far-fetched idea but it would solve some of the credibility issues of the food industry. My guess is nothing whatsoever will happen on this because it requires cooperation between companies in the same food categories, and I doubt any company could execute a project like this on its own.

But it’s a shame something like this doesn’t exist, because our industry truly makes delicious, safe food. We just don’t do a very good job of telling people that.

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