retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Do you want to know why consumers are always confused? Consider this one small example:

The most recent edition of Good Housekeeping highlights 10 heath rules readers need to ignore, mostly on eating and exercise. Apparently the old rule was to avoid squats. Now, GH readers are advised to do the very opposite.

When it’s that hard to understand the pros and cons of a simple workout, we understand why complex topics completely flummox the general population.

Let’s take a far more serious example: imagine there was a technology that scientists and public health officials consider nearly a magic bullet to address food safety. It involves a technology that is already widely used and in one form is found in almost every American kitchen.

You’d think there would be nothing controversial about that except that it is. The technology is irradiation and despite years of discussion and widespread use, the name remains a killer of popular acceptance.

As the Washington Post reported two weeks ago, irradiation “has barely caught on in the United States…(because) for many consumers it conjures up frightening images of mutant life forms and phosphorescent food.”

As the Post reported, there are dozen of studies showing that irradiated food is safe for consumption and really does deliver on its promise of zapping bacteria out of food. Plus, as one proponent says, the technology is pretty ubiquitous. As he put it, “Naysayers better throw out their microwaves because that is irradiation.”

For balance, the Post also quotes irradiation opponents who claim the technology would cause food suppliers to relax current safety procedures and rely too heavily on irradiation.

The challenge we seem to face is just like the issue of whether squats are a worthwhile exercise: how to advance sound or even simply balanced information in a day and age of endless and unfettered information. It’s one of many reasons why industry must learn to master the world of social media and new communication because silence will not win the argument.

The food industry sits in an unusually important position on the need to help consumers better understand a world of complex issues. Topics from the scientific to health dominate discussion, yet frequently uninformed voices speak loud enough to win the day. As some suggested in the Post article, industry needs to find new ways of opening these complex discussions, possibly by better positioning why technology is used.

For instance, instead of simply labeling products as irradiated, packages could explain the product is “irradiated to protect your family.” Yet that too requires education to make the point. It’s not just a slogan.

However, the importance of communication and education cannot be overstated. In the article, Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, blames the federal government for failing to properly educate the public on scientific issues from irradiation to childhood immunizations to fluoridated water.

“Not using irradiation is the single greatest public health failure of the last part of the 20th century in American, “Osterholm said to the Post.

Makes you wonder what discussion will be held when people look back on the first half of the 21st century. I’m betting no one will say the greatest public health failure involves squats.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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