FRANKENSTEIN FOOD FROM THE FAMILY FARM

FRANKENSTEIN FOOD FROM THE FAMILY FARM

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 positives of rural living gave agriculture an aura. Now we are led to believe that the family farm provides ''Frankenstein food.''

We have 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 passive role 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.

Referring to the continuing and highly vocal criticism of genetically modified (GMO) crops and bio-foods, the chief executive of Pioneer Hi-Bred International recently suggested that the United States needs to wage a war against ''GMO propaganda.''

What concerns Pioneer concerns a host of others who are in the forefront of the biotech revolution and are seeing their products banned by the European Union because of protectionist rules often disguised as food safety claims.

Why this fear of food that is produced by employing some of the best bio-technology available today? And why is the term Frankenstein foods showing up regularly in reports carried by the mainline press?

Obviously, the producers of genetically modified drugs, commodities and foodstuffs are not getting their stories across. Somehow, our corporations and our farm producers are not getting through to consumers and governments from Europe to Asia.

American food companies introduce these processed and bio-engineered foods without prepping the consumer in advance.

To date, that's not been a problem in the United States. But it is a problem in Europe, Asia and Latin America, where the food revolution is lagging behind that in the United States, and where consumers are much more likely to buy and prepare raw foods on a daily basis. To them, bio-engineered food can be scary.

The job for agribusiness managers 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 and managers to explain the meanings of all the modern-day lingo associated with bio-engineered food.

How do we do it?

First, develop a glossary and stick to it.

Dr. 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.

Second, managers need to know who their adversaries are, what those adversaries are saying, and why. 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.

Third, get spokespeople to explain the food technologies. 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 who can speak their language.

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 America, consumers most trust information from the American Medical Association, the National Institute of Health, and the FDA. They least trust activist groups, grocery stores and the food companies.

As we wrote this article, the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association sent us a press release with the following headline: ''New Version of FDA Food Code Includes Changes Relating to Eggs.'' The press release went on to state that the new FDA guidelines ''will mitigate adverse consequences.''

Who would run this copy? Why not, ''New Egg Guidelines Will Save Lives?'' So our conclusion is: Why not try a new approach to get food's message out?