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Until 1995, almost no one had heard of GMOs, BSE, or E. coli 0157:H7. Today these terms represent the greatest challenge facing the U.S. agri-food system - assuring increasingly skeptical customers that the foods they eat are as safe as possible.

"Communicating the safety of food and food ingredients is a new and growing focus of food marketing," says Sara Lilygren, senior vice president for legislative and public affairs at the American Meat Institute. "Consumers want foods that contribute to better health. The marketing of food safety attributes - such as 'irradiated for your safety' - is a natural extension of the food industry's earlier success with low-fat marketing campaigns."

Experts agree that safety communications must begin with agrimarketers. "Food safety marketing attributes often are created on the farm," adds Lilygren. "So agrimarketers are a critical element here."

Consumers generally hold farmers and ranchers in high regard when it comes to ensuring safe food. In its eighth annual food safety survey, CMF&Z Marketing Communications found that 67 percent of consumers rated farmers as doing an excellent job ensuring food safety. The rating was the highest of all segments in the food chain, including supermarkets, restaurants, processors, government agencies and packers.

"Farmers and ranchers have been very proactive in encouraging the adoption of food safety procedures and technologies," says Pete Ellis, president and CEO of Food Technology Service, Inc., the nation's first commercial food irradiation provider. "Beef, pork and poultry producers were among the strongest advocates for food irradiation. Their support played a key role in the FDA's approval of irradiation for meat and poultry. They must continue to be active proponents to help build consumer acceptance for irradiated foods."

Industry Invests in Safety Research

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association has invested about $8 million in research on pathogen reduction technologies including irradiation, steam and pasteurization, says Gary Cowman, the NCBA's executive director for research and technical service.

"I can assure you that beef producers are very cognizant of the need for safe food-handling measures and pathogen-reduction measures," Cowman says.

Bill Brewer, public relations vice president for CMF&Z, notes that consumers' high regard for farmers and ranchers creates both opportunities and challenges for agrimarketers.

"Farmers and ranchers recognize their future successes will depend on maintaining consumer confidence," says Brewer. "Consumer concern over the safety of food and food ingredients will encourage farmers and ranchers to hold suppliers more accountable for the safety of inputs and hold processors more accountable for preserving the safety of products that enter their plants. Food safety will become as important a focus in marketing communications as it has in regulatory activity."

Pathogen Reduction Focus

Pathogen reduction has been the primary focus of numerous regulatory initiatives starting with the USDA's implementation of Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) in 1998. The standards require packers and processors to implement quality-assurance safeguards at every critical control point in their production processes.

In addition to treating food products during or after processing, other emerging technologies offer the potential to trace specific foods and food ingredients to their sources.

"A primary concern of producers relative to traceability is that, because they are an end point on the supply chain, they may be unfairly blamed for introducing pathogens that really entered the food after it left the farm. Producers have no control over the product at that time. It may be possible to trace the path that a food product has traveled, but it is difficult to identify where a pathogen may have entered the product," adds Ken Olson, dairy and animal health specialist for the American Farm Bureau Federation.

GMO Controversy Triggers Grower Scrutiny

Farmer and rancher concerns about food safety extend beyond bacterial contamination to the production of grain and produce from genetically modified seed.

"The uproar in Europe over biotechnology has caused farmers and ranchers to demand more information from input suppliers than ever before. Not only are they looking for products that will maximize their production, but they also want assurances their crops and livestock will be accepted at the marketplace," says Brewer. "A growing focus for agrimarketers will be to deliver important food safety information to their farmer customers as well as to companies that purchase farm commodities."

The latest CMF&Z Food Safety Survey, Brewer says, suggests that consumers are in even greater need of this information.

Perhaps surprisingly, Brewer notes, the survey revealed that only 17 percent of respondents correctly defined the term "biotechnology," while 38 percent did not know the definition. Consumers fared only slightly better (29 percent) when it came to the definition of "genetically modified organism." However, only 9 percent of the consumers surveyed associated the term "functional foods" with improved health or protection against disease.

Consumer acceptance of meat irradiation, Brewer notes, offers an example for proponents of other emerging technologies. Slightly more than one-half of the respondents to the CMF&Z survey said that they are at least somewhat aware of meat irradiation. Of those who are aware, 57 percent said they believe irradiation is a very effective food safety tool, up from 47 percent a year ago, and nearly two-thirds said that they are at least somewhat likely to purchase irradiated foods.

"Acceptance or rejection of biotechnology, and other food-related technologies will hinge upon who steps forward first with credible information that is easily understood by the end user," Brewer says. "The winner will be the communicator who answers the consumer's fundamental question 'What's in it for me?'"

The Biotechnology Information Council, the industry group created to educate and inform consumers about plant biotechnology, represents a significant step by agrimarketers to reach out to the end-users of their products, he said. Agrimarketers, he adds, should adhere to a five-point strategy to communicate food-safety information:

1. Anticipate opposition to your products and their messages. Find common ground, if possible, with groups who may be opposed.

2. Include consumer audiences in communicating the characteristics and benefits of agricultural inputs and food production/processing technologies.

3. Utilize third parties respected by consumers to reinforce important food-safety and consumer-benefit messages.

M. Refrain from attacking a competitor's technology. It usually backfires.

5. If you have a product or a technology that enhances the safety of food, tell your story early, and keep telling it.

"If food safety is improved, then everyone stands to gain," adds Farm Bureau's Olson. AM

Jim Stephens is senior vice president and managing director of CMF&Z Public Relations.

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