Consumer demand - the holy grail of any industry - is a fragile and easily manipulated treasure. But influencing consumers for anything other than their own benefit will, more often than not, carry unintended consequences.
Quite simply, manufacturers will manufacture what consumers will consume, and regulators must ensure a proper framework of guidelines surrounds the whole process. Yet consumers are still left in a very vulnerable position. Despite the fact that many people like to make conscious purchasing decisions, on the whole they dedicate a proportionally minute amount of their time making these decisions, which are ultimately determined by whatever information manages to penetrate into their consciousness. This places a large amount or responsibility in the hands of manufacturers and regulatory bodies; abusing this responsibility in the name of profit is unfortunately not something unfamiliar. Even those that remain skeptical of marketing messages are, more often than not, swayed by faith in regulatory decisions. A survey published last week by the International Food Information Council asked consumers in the US what they thought of cloned food. Only 24 percent were favorable. But if this food was deemed safe by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 46 percent said they'd likely to buy it. It was then explained to survey participants that food 'from cloned animals' actually meant food 'from animals enhanced through genetic engineering', and the number of people who said they'd buy it jumped further to 61 percent. What if the term had been changed instead to food 'from animals created with reprogrammed genetic material'? The accurate but slightly ominous-sounding explanation would almost certainly cause those figures to fall. The way information is transmitted is crucial in determining how consumers will ultimately think and act. But abusing this often blind confidence will only damage business more than create it - people will view firms as irresponsible and focused only on their own profit and not the wellbeing of their customers. The rather obvious result is a crash in consumer confidence and brand loyalty, which no company can afford in the shark-infested sea of competition. Take the issue of cancer-causing benzene in soft drinks for example. The FDA and the soft drinks industry had known for 15 years that two common ingredients - sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid (vitamin C) - could react to form benzene in drinks. Despite this, neither industry nor the regulatory body made any announcements or enforced any limits. The FDA instead privately agreed for the industry to "get the word out and reformulate". Which industry neglected to do. The consequences were felt last year, when the news trickled out, consumers were outraged, and drinks firms lost time, money and reputation on lawsuits, testing, recalls, reformulation and PR efforts to desperately keep a hold on their consumer base. In the past month we have seen another example of actions by industry and regulatory bodies called into question. The recent study from the UK's Southampton University that linked certain additives to hyperactivity in children caused a huge stir in the media and consumer world, particularly in the UK. Consumers don't care much for the back-and-forth of scientific studies and opinions. Although this may be a necessary part of the process to determine the safety of an ingredient, consumers ultimately want a simple yes or no answer, and a guarantee that the products sold to them are safe. Understandably, questions are now flying around and barriers are being raised in consumer minds and wallets. How can the UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA), they ask themselves, regulate the additives as safe for consumption, and then issue advice to parents that eliminating these very additives from the diet could have some benefits for children? And we might ask ourselves precisely the same question. Industry is in a similar fix. After an open FSA board meeting last week, the chair of the board expressed "astonishment that industry has not moved more quickly to remove these artificial colors from their products, in the light of serious concerns raised by consumers." So who points the finger, where is it pointed, who benefits and who loses? Yes, the food industry is in a tough position, pulled from all directions and also placing its own blinders in the name of profit and convenience. But there is ultimately no sympathy out there, so when things go wrong food companies are simply left to face the consequences. The strongest tool to face such consequences is a business growth policy established from the outset that is based on transparency and, above all, the benefit of consumers. Lorraine Heller is editor of FoodNavigator-USA and is a specialist writer on food industry issues. With an international focus, she has lived and worked in the UK, Cyprus and France.
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