Academic journal article Public Relations Journal

A Full Plate: Consumer Concerns Challenge Food and Beverage Practitioners

Academic journal article Public Relations Journal

A Full Plate: Consumer Concerns Challenge Food and Beverage Practitioners

Article excerpt

People have to eat and drink to live. But what and how much? Practitioners must convey a credible, balanced perspective while addressing a spread of health and safety issues facing the industry.

Product tampering, such as the recent rash of hoaxes involving Pepsi-Cola, is only one of many issues that relate to foods and beverages. The issues list, which seems to grow daily, is a lengthy one. The entries include fat, cholesterol, salt, fiber, pesticides, supplements, labeling, spoilage, disease prevention, environmental damage, biotechnology, nutritional claims and alcoholism.

Therefore, food and beverage public relations practitioners are finding more on their plates than ever before. Some items are new and unfamiliar--like "recombinant bovine somatotropin" (BST), a genetically engineered cow hormone. Some are terrifying--under-cooked hamburger that kills.

Of all the issues, the two that practitioners cite as consumers' greatest concerns are nutrition/health and safety. That focus consolidates but does not significantly shorten the list.

Consumers are eager for information about nutrition issues, but are confused by conflicting messages. Dairy products contain good-for-you-calcium but bad-for-you fat. Meat contains good-for-you iron and B vitamins, but bad-for-you cholesterol and fat. Butter is bad--but margarine could be worse! Not knowing whom to trust, consumers veer from confusion to skepticism to throwing up their hands in despair.

The consumers who do still care, however, seem to focus on the negative. "People today are more interested in what hurts than what helps," said Sara Clarke, vice president, public affairs, at the American Meat Institute in Arlington, VA. "They don't want to do things to make themselves healthier. They want to avoid things."

To cope with the confusion, skepticism and negativism, practitioners must provide far more information than ever before. That information must be more scientific--and thus, presumably, more reliable. Yet it must also be clear and understandable. And above all, the source must be credible--untainted by vested interests.

Eggs, dairy products and meats all contend with good/bad messages. The egg, even though highly nutritious, has become a villain because of its cholesterol content. Worse, it can be portrayed as "high fat" because most of its calories come from fat, pointed out Patricia Londre, APR, president of The Londre Company in Los Angeles. To track consumer sentiment as well as dispel myths about eggs, the firm, which is counsel to the California Egg Commission, established a toll-free number in January that consumers and the media can call with questions about eggs. Information is provided by the egg industry and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). "We must communicate that you don't look at individual ingredients, but at the big picture--everything in moderation as part of a balanced diet," Londre advised.

To maintain interest in the hot line, the firm sends bimonthly media releases reporting the number of calls received and the most common questions. "Many of the things people want to know can be printed on an egg carton," she noted. "At the end of the year, we'll make recommendations |about these blurbs~ to the Egg Commission"

Londre was among the practitioners stressing the importance of providing classroom materials. "We must reach consumers at a young age and teach them the basics, because nutrition courses are being eliminated," she explained. "We did a focus group with teachers, and they said they must now incorporate nutrition messages into other subjects, like science. If we can develop teaching materials that show how the body reacts to foods--that's science."

Third parties add credibility

The fat content of dairy products is "an issue we're constantly up against," noted Brenda Beltram, director of communication for the American Dairy Association and Dairy Council (ADADC) in Cedar Knolls, NJ. …

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