Communicating Food Safety

By Jeff Weidauer,

Two years ago this week, the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) became law; it represents the greatest reform in U.S. food safety laws in more than 70 years. The greatest change as a result of the FMSA is the change in FDA focus regarding food contamination, from a response strategy to one of prevention.

Over the past 30 years food contamination has become a growing problem in the U.S. Some of the problems are imported from places like China, but many are quite literally homegrown: think listeria-tainted cantaloupes or salmonella-laced peanut butter. Both were domestically produced and distributed to stores all around the country.

Clearly, the need for a more intense focus on food safety exists. From the consumer perspective though, getting information (that is, accurate and timely information) isn’t easily done. The news media provides some information, but little that is actionable for most shoppers. One can turn to the Internet and trusted resources like the FDA’s own website, but there’s a lot of information to wade through to find the answer to a specific question about something like a peanut butter recall.

Many people remember the Tylenol poisoning tragedy from fall 1982 in Chicago. The late James E. Burke (he passed away in September 2012), then-CEO of Johnson & Johnson, took the risky, but right step, of recalling every bottle of Tylenol in the country — over 31 million of them. Mr. Burke’s response has been used as a premiere example of how to respond in a crisis.

Unfortunately, J&J more recently fumbled its response when presented with quality control problems for Tylenol, causing consumers to change their feelings about the company and its trustworthiness.

Ultimately it all comes down to trust; and the ongoing problems with meat, produce and processed foods have had a significant impact on consumer trust in the safety of our food supply. Nothing is more critical to shoppers than being able to trust what they are buying when feeding themselves and their families. Locally grown foods are becoming more popular, partly in response to a burgeoning interest in healthful eating, but spurred on as well by concerns over safety.

Food retailers have both a responsibility and an opportunity in the food safety arena. Local stores enjoy a level of trust from shoppers that food manufacturers have never been able to achieve. Much of this has to do with the local presence of the store and the inherent people aspect. Rather than a faceless factory, the local supermarket is comprised of real people who can answer questions and respond to shopper concerns.

What’s needed from the retailer is a greater focus on food safety to match what’s on the mind of shoppers. While food stores generally do a good job of executing recalls and adhering to health department regulations, there remains an opportunity to be the best source of information about food—news, recalls, and ongoing education.

Most supermarkets have a dietitian, or several dietitians, on-staff to respond to customer questions about eating right. Why not expand their duties (and their staff) to include food safety? Why not make it a point — and a point of difference — to provide up-to-date information on the food carried in the store? Why not make the most of that trust shoppers already have and build on it by having relevant and accurate information for shoppers about food safety?

Making these changes doesn't require massive personnel additions. It’s more a matter of prioritizing what’s important. Food safety should be an ongoing conversation with shoppers, not something that only comes up when there’s a major recall. It’s important to communicate what the recall process is up-front, before one happens. Provide real-time information to shoppers in the store and on websites about recalls when they do occur, and what’s being done locally to eliminate the risk.

But also make food safety part of the store’s daily offering. Put information on the shelf edge that helps to educate and inform shoppers. Have a place on the company website where shoppers can go to track food safety issues. Then put the web address on the shelf edge and other marketing materials to drive them there.

There are many predictions being tossed out right now about what we’ll see in 2013. Unfortunately, it’s a sure bet that we will see at least a couple major food recalls as a result of tainting in the coming year. However, more and more retailers are looking for ways to enhance the shopping experience and talk to shoppers about more than just price.

One avenue is to start building a platform of food safety that shoppers can trust and will be able to use every day, and especially when the unthinkable happens. And make no mistake, the unthinkable will happen. We have a responsibility to our shoppers to provide not just food that is safe for them and their families, but the necessary information to make decisions about that food.

Jeff Weidauer is VP of marketing and strategy for Vestcom International Inc., a Little Rock, Ark.-based provider of integrated shopper marketing solutions. He can be reached at, or visit

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