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Overcoming phood phobia: changing perceptions about bio-engineered products.



These were the titles of two speeches given by an environmental activist and a grain company executive discussing bio-engineered food products. Which headline got the most attention?

It used to be that agriculture and its products were given a "free ride" in American public opinion. The family farm, the farm vote, and the positive qualities of rural living gave agriculture an aura of sanctity.

This all has changed. The U.S. has become an overwhelmingly urban nation. Politicians don't need whatever small farm vote there is, and food production and processing are perceived to be in the hands of nefarious big businesses. The food ignorance of the urban consumer ("Mommy, where do they grow chicken breasts?"), the political/media savvy of anti-agribusiness groups, and the passivity of media have put anyone in the food business in a precarious position. Some people in agribusiness still don't realize how the rules of communicating have changed in the last decade.

Corporate Response

Referring to the continuing and highly vocal criticism of genetically modified (GMO) crops and bio-foods, the CEO of Johnson and Pioneer Hi-Bred International recently suggested that the U.S. needs to wage a war against "GMO propaganda," and that such a war should not be the sole responsibility of the companies that sell seeds. Pioneer Hi-Bred's Charles Johnson added this about responding to growing consumers' fears: "We need to listen enough to understand what in their food system could be improved," while remaining in their "value system."

What concerns Johnson and Pioneer concerns a host of others - from international corporate giants such as Monsanto and DuPont, who are in the forefront of the biotech revolution, to America's beef, pork and poultry producers who see their products banned by the European Union because of protectionist rules often disguised as food safety claims. The U.S. National Cattleman's Beef Association estimates that the EU ban on hormone-treated beef costs U.S. cattle producers about $500 million in lost sales each year. The National Pork Producers Council told a recent U.S. congressional hearing on international trade that the EU pork market "has basically been closed to the U.S. pork industry for over 10 years."

Greenpeace and other advocacy groups on the European continent continue their own war against GMO grains and soybeans. There's strong pressure on the EU to label foods from these commodities as genetically modified. In February, four tons of genetically modified soybeans were heaped in front of the British Prime Minister's residence in a protest. There is also resistance to using hormones in dairy cattle. The Wall Street Journal reported in March that the EU's five-year-old ban on the sale of Monsanto's BST synthetic cow hormone will likely continue because an EU-appointed panel is raising human health concerns that have already been rejected by other governments. In Japan, a government survey of consumers in 1997 found that more than 80 percent of those questioned had "reservations" about GMO foods. More than 92 percent in the Japanese survey favored mandatory labeling.

Why this fear of food that is produced by employing some of the best bio-technology available today? Why this fear when there is no scientific basis for it? And why is the term "Frankenstein foods" showing up regularly in reports carried by mainline publications such as Fortune magazine, the Financial Times, and The International Herald Tribune?

Obviously, the producers of genetically modified drugs, commodities, and foodstuffs are not getting their stories across. Sure, their scientists can provide unending information supporting the safety claims behind each product. Sure, there's no evidence to date that these products are doing anything more than their producers claim - turning out greater volumes and more uniform foods at no greater cost than traditional foods. But somehow, our corporations and our farm producers are not getting through to consumers and governments from Europe to Asia.

One explanation for this disconnect comes from Ulrich Steger, from Switzerland's International Institute for Management Development. He specializes in clashes between corporations and society. In an interview in the Financial Times, Steger opined that corporations are surprised by controversy because, too often, they pay little attention to the dangers that lurk in the power of opinions and emotions. "Managers do not think politically," he said. "And in these days of shareholder value, managers are so overrun that they do not have the time to think things through and put themselves in the shoes of their adversary."

Another European - Mark Lund of Delane Fletcher and Bozell advertising agency in London - suggested in the same Financial Times report that "the most effective way of creating an environment of acceptability for a controversial product is probably still very good public relations."

The War of Words

Increasingly, we live in an urban society. But unlike Europe, the U.S. has little social commitment to keeping family farmers on the farm. Certainly, the U.S. government is committed to making farming a profitable business, spending billions of dollars annually on direct farm subsidies and on export programs. But with the continuing movement of people from the farm to the cities, most consumers understand less and less what it takes to grow and handle food before it arrives on the local supermarket shelf. Our consumer society is continually "productized," that is, our food is processed and sold as parts, it's shrink wrapped, and it's branded. American consumers buy little raw food direct from the farm, and our hurried lifestyle leaves little time to learn about or even prepare food. No wonder 40 percent of all Americans still don't know what they will be having for dinner by four o'clock.

At the same time, Americans are eating fewer meals at home and more meals in restaurants or from fast food take-outs. Our food is no longer a "sacred event" shared by families sitting around the dinner table. We don't have - or take - the time to prepare meals from scratch. But U.S. food companies introduce these processed and bio-engineered foods without prepping the consumer in advance. To date, that has not been a problem in the U.S. But it is a problem in Europe, Asia and Latin America, where the food revolution is lagging behind the U.S., and where consumers are much more likely to buy and prepare raw foods every day. To them, bio-engineered food can be scary.

In Britain, for example, officials and scientists pooh-poohed "mad cow disease" for years before people began dying from it. But at latest count, 39 persons are known to have died from a human version of this disease transmitted by infected beef from England. E. coil in food has killed consumers in the U.S. and Japan, further fueling consumers' fears. So let's not kid ourselves in this business - consumers know that at times, and under unusual circumstances, food can kill. The job for communicators is to educate the public about the risks, the safety, and the ways they should prepare foods to eliminate the hazards. It's also the job of business communicators to explain the meanings of all the modern-day lingo associated with bio-engineered food.

How do we do it?

1. Develop a glossary and stick to it

Thomas J. Hoban of North Carolina State University has done some pioneering work in gauging consumer attitudes toward bio-engineered foods. He has found that people react negatively to the terms "genetically modified" or "enhanced," but react positively to the term "bio-engineered."

This industry needs to establish a consistent glossary of terms that are perceived as the most positive by consumers. To date, the terminology used has been the province of scientists.

Hoban's research also revealed incredible ignorance over bio-engineered crops. When he asked the question, "Ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes while genetically modified tomatoes do (True or False?)," to consumers in the Netherlands, 51 percent answered true. In the U.S., 45 percent of respondents thought the statement to be true. Of greater importance are the responses to the following question: "By eating a genetically modified fruit, a person's genes could also be changed (True or False?)." In the U.S., 61 percent answered true, in The Netherlands 74 percent answered true, in the UK 55 percent answered true, and in Sweden 62 percent answered true.

2. Know Your Enemy

Second, communicators need to know who their adversaries are, what those adversaries are saying, and why. It may be easy to pass off the opposition in this war of food as "crazies," "greens" or "scaremongers," but it would be wrong to do so. Get to know the opposition. Read their background papers and press releases. Check out their web sites. And tell your management what's really going on in the outside world. If a new product means millions more for your company's bottom line, explain to management that some of that new profit has to go toward explaining the "newest model" to the general public before the model launch date.

3. Explain the Benefits

Third, get spokespeople on your team who can explain your product simply and convincingly. Much of the trouble in the past has been corporations' reliance on scientists and specialists who have all the facts on the tip of their tongues. That alone won't work in the future.

Instead, look for spokespeople who can gain the confidence of the media and speak their language. Since Watergate and Vietnam, the general nature of news has increasingly tended toward the negative. Journalists today distrust organizations (other than the news media and public interest groups), and they look increasingly for conflict and contradiction to make their reports attractive to readers and viewers. Journalists probably don't know much about your business; it's not their job. They are looking for sound bites and quotes that will be dramatic and remembered.

So, before that first call from the media comes, business communicators should create sound bites and quotes that are straightforward, truthful, and believable. Anticipate their questions and form answers that tell your own story. Don't let your adversaries in this war of words do it for you.

The Medium Is the Message

Many agribusiness firms involved in food engineering have disseminated information on bio-engineered foods with little regard to the trust consumers place in each one. In the U.S., consumers most trust information from the American Medical Association, the National Institutes of Health, and the Food and Drug Administration. They trust activist groups, grocery stores, and the food companies least.

In Europe, activist groups are trusted the most; governments and food companies are trusted the least. To be successful in getting its message across, agribusiness has to educate the marketplace using a variety of channels and sources.

And This Just In...

As we go to press, the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association sent us a press release with the following head, "New Version of FDA Food Code Includes Changes Relating to Eggs." The press release goes on to state that the new FDA guidelines will save lives but, in scientific terms, "will mitigate adverse consequences." Who would run this copy? Why not say "New Egg Guidelines Will Save Lives?" So our conclusion is "why not" try a new approach to get food's message out?

John Freivalds and Daryl Natz work for JFA Inc., a Minneapolis, Minn.-based marketing communications firm.
COPYRIGHT 1999 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Natz, Daryl
Publication:Communication World
Date:Jun 1, 1999
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