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Food safety: It's all about trust

TODAY food editor Phil Lempert outlines what American food manufacturers and consumers are doing in response to the recent recalls and growing concerns about who is making what we eat, and how they make it.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

This year, a plethora of food recalls, from peanut butter to mushrooms, cantaloupes to chicken, have headlined the front page of every newspaper and Internet news source, and the results have been both devastating and promising.

Although food safety in the U.S. is considered among the best in the world, food-borne diseases still cause 76 million illnesses a year, which has steered many consumers away from conventional produce to organic, and from international to local or regional products, especially produce.

The devastating impact has been an erosion of the public trust and loss of billions of dollars in revenues for many companies.

The promising effect is that manufacturers are questioning their practices for outsourcing, quality control, marketing and advertising communications, and rethinking how they can win back the trust that has so crippled their market.

Compounding this situation is that many consumers have leveraged education and priorities.

A new report and study from IBM, "Establishing Trust through Traceability," has identified these shoppers as the  "Omni Consumer”; one who buys not solely out of need or even desire but with accountability to the society in mind. She reads labels, questions supermarkets and product manufacturers alike, and lets her opinions be heard, and heard loudly.

Frankly, this shopper may quickly become one of the most important in history. And here’s why: Forty percent have switched to different brands following these recent recalls, and nearly 86 percent know and appreciate products made from organic ingredients. Their buying patterns are changing overall from brand names to private label purchases, a continuing devastating change to many brand-conscious producers. 

This is such a concern that re-branding has become a strong focus for many manufacturers because only 24 percent of consumers believe branded products are more likely to deliver benefits claimed than private label, whether it's a food or non-food product.

So what are brands doing to fight this trend?

Consumer Packaged Good (CPG) companies are making more demands on what is already a very complicated supply chain that involves other countries, elaborate shipping programs, and tighter quality control efforts up and down the line. The ability of regulators to monitor and sample the quality and safety of shipments has been greatly strained (especially as the USDA and FDA budgets have been shrunk to redirect funds for the military), and the flurry of recent recalls is another reminder that not every task can be delegated when global sourcing is involved.

The primary concern of these manufacturers remains saving their image through marketing and branding, rather than in improving the complicated, unwieldy chain of supply that brings product to the grocery shelf. CPG companies do continue to invest a great deal of money in tracking systems, but no concrete changes have yet to be suggested to increase precision and enhance delivery for "Full Value Traceability." What we need (and we consumers should demand) is exceptional traceability, i.e., that companies can track back to the places where control falters, whether it's in quality of the product, safety, compliance with international or U.S. guidelines, or efficacy of containers in which shipments are delivered. 

And in a wave of understanding Web 2.0, these companies are actually trolling the Internet as a quicker way to discover product frailties than conventional group studies, sales analysis or call center feedback, and reading what you and I have to say. So, say it here and now.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the TODAY show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at .