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Irradiated foods may pose credibility and liability challenges to retailers.

Recent problems with REDB in citrus and flour products have generated an extra megadose of interest in food irradiation as an alternative method of preservation. Last fall, The Consumer Network tapped 25 especially smart shoppers of all ages from across the U.S. to assess consumers' concerns about, and interest level in, this new technology.

Follow-up interviews were conducted with five of the participants in February 1984, after the EDB story had been in the limelight. What we learned on both occasions was that a great many shoppers are intrigued by the idea of food irradiation and are very interested in trying irradiated foods--especially baked goods--even if they aren't quite as good as "regular" foods on the first day. Several indicated that they would even be willing to pay more for irradiated foods if they really lasted longer. Any Other Name

Many of our panelists felt that some designation of this process was necessary, but suggested that a less threatening sounding word than "irradiated" might be used. Just what irradiated food is actually called at the retail level may be a moot point. The FDA's proposed rule on "Irradiation in the Production, Processing and Handling of Food" (Feb. register Vol. 49, No. 31, 2/14/1984) does require that non-retail containers and bills of lading show that the food has been irradiated, but does not require any labeling at the retail level "because of countervailing considerations" such as the fact that "any required label statement may be confusing to individual consumers who lack the background to understand the brief information provided."

This puts the burden of communication and the decision as to whether or not to tell consumers that a food item was irradiated squarely on the shoulders of the retailer. The consumers whom we asked about this said things like: "They'd have to tell us, or we'd never trust them again," and, "I think the process sounds a lot safer than the chemicals they are using now, but if I found out they'd sold it to me without letting me know what I was buying, I'd want to sue them and I'd certainly never shop there again."

The high level of interest in irradiated foods is attributable to current lifestyles and the popularity of high-tech solutions to both economic and daily living problems. Even with the phrase "Radiated to Preserve Freshness," clearly included, and acknowledgement of risks as well as benefits, a majority of respondents expressed interest in trying foods in each of the categories proposed. In fact, the value of extended freshness is such that a majority of our respondents expressed a willingness to purchase irradiated fruits and baked goods even if they weren't as good as thier conventional counterparts on the day of purchase.

Many of our panelists responded with even more enthusiasm to the benefits of irradiation as a replacement for presently used additives and ingredients that they perceive to be harmful. Singles Receptive

The reaction of the "New Single" who cooks and shops for one person was especially important. She perceived this as a solution to the "mossy" foods that single consumers must face if they choose to eat at home and purchase something to go with their portion controlled prepared foods. This is important because this consumer perceived food radiation as a solution to a growing problem. Just so, the sales of portion controlled quality frozen entrees have grown explosively as contemporary consumers have come to see them as a solution to their time and weight problems.

The media handling of the techniques, the technology, the application and the marketing practices will be the key to consumer acceptance of failure. Media will give this subject big play. Media can pave the way for public acceptance. And media can also set back public acceptance by decades. Our consumers' unsolicited acknowledgement of the media as the final authority on the trustworthiness of irradiated foods ("I'll wait to see what the reporters say about it.") shows the tremendous power the media have in this situation.

Even with the best identification, the media will unquestionably have some good times with the question of how the food is changed. (For example, "Does it glow in the dark?") The industry must be prepared to handle URP's (Unique Radiolytic Products generated by the irradiation process) and other issues in a pro-active and forthright (as opposed to reactive and defensive) fashion. Costly Backlash

Since processes such as Ultrapasteurized have been distinctly labeled for some time, attempts to market unlabeled irradiated foods could produce a costly backlash. To encourage media support and positive headlines, the industry should follow the suggestions of our astute panelists in finding a high-tech, low-threat label euphemism for "radiated." The euphemism shouldn't be a platitude and should be a word or phrase that consumers can easily associate with the coverage that the process, the technology, and the products will surely receive.
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Author:Doyle , Mona
Publication:Progressive Grocer
Date:May 1, 1984
Words:812
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