News Feature | June 30, 2014

Cornell Study Touts The Importance Of Food Industry Transparency

By Laurel Maloy, contributing writer, Food Online

Food Industry Transparency Study Cornell

Days rarely pass that consumers are not inundated with a plethora of stories about the merits and failings of ingredients in our food. What’s a body to eat?

A recent telephone study of 1,008 mothers in the U.S. is instrumental in assessing the value of corporate transparency vs. the misinformation disseminated on the Internet. The media also plays a part by making “horror” stories the news of the day. News anchors and investigative reporters surf the Internet, scrambling to get the scoop before their competitors or jumping on the bandwagon of overly-enthusiastic fanatics. This particular foodie culture has resulted in a nation of people, especially mothers, who spend hours in grocery stores poring over labels or looking for symptoms of illnesses related to something they’ve fed their families. Each news story has mothers running to the pantry or freezer to check labels and then logging onto the Internet to search the latest ingredient-gone-bad. Inevitably, plenty of information is available to add fuel to the fear, while little is readily available to dispel those fears.

Conducted by researchers at Cornell University, the survey concentrated on mothers’ perceptions of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), and found:

  • Consumers fearing a specific ingredient, such as HFCS, are likely to exaggerate the perceived risks
  • These same consumers are more likely to get information from the Internet than from television
  • The surveyed consumers were influenced, in part, by peer groups
  • Ingredients, such as HFCS, associated with less-healthy eating, resulted in the less-favorable evaluation of foods containing that ingredient, even though the food is considered healthy

The study’s final observation was that when presented with facts on the ingredient’s background, history, and general usage, the fear associated with a particular ingredient may be counteracted. The study found that the more informed the consumer is, the less likely they will be to experience ingredient-based food fears.

This is not a totally new concept; however, it is one that, so far, has not been embraced whole-heartedly by the food industry, public health organizations, or consumer groups. This same conclusion was presented in a white paper in March 2013 and represented in an article, Transparency In The Supply Chain — The Key To Gaining Consumers' Trust a year later on Food Online. The importance of industry transparency and the need for improved labeling, the easiest and most forthcoming way for the industry to combat consumer fears, can be found in this article.

As FSMA nears implementation, the public’s awareness has increased. Every time there is a foodborne-illness outbreak or a plant closure due to unsanitary practices, the consumer loses confidence in the industry, as a whole. It’s hard not to — the public is inundated with scary information from trusted news sources, including the Internet, while the food industry mostly keeps its mouth shut, except to apologize and/or defend itself. The same is true for those ingredients, such as HFCS, “pink slime,” saturated fat, mono-sodium glutamate (MSG) and a host of other ingredients (yes, this came right from the Internet) that “should be avoided at all costs.” Some of these ingredients have been the subject of many studies; some have not, and still more, such as Potassium Bromate are still being studied with conflicting results.

The conclusion of this study, however, is what can make the most difference in the consumer’s perception and in any food processor’s bottom line. Reach out and connect — take the first step toward meeting the consumer half-way. This is the approach to make the consumer stop seeing you as big business and more as a group of fellow consumers who have families to feed, just like them.