by Ramin Ganeshram
Safety. Purity. Reality. Simplicity.
You could call these the four pillars of the New Healthy Eater. This everyconsumer has a simple mantra: Make it real, make it clear and make it safe. It’s a position based on seeing what you get and understanding what you see. But thanks to the government shutdown even the most savvy consumers will find that trusting their own eyes will not be enough to keep their families safe at the grocery store or a favorite restaurant.
What does the ongoing congressional battle of the budget have to do with what’s on your plate?
Among the furloughed federal employees are Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspectors tasked with ensuring the safety of the food we buy to make at home or buy prepared for us in restaurant. This might not seem like a big deal — how often do recalls really happen anyway?
Last Thursday, FDA inspectors triggered a recall of 50,000 pounds of ground beef. This Thursday 90,000 pounds of ground beef used for the National School Lunch program was recalled because of a plastic contaminant. Last summer there was a 300,000-pound ground beef recall in New Jersey. These are just a recent few of the thousands of recalls the FDA enacts every year.
And if a foodborne illness outbreak happens, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) won’t be online to help manage the public health crisis and get help for those affected.
One can always hope that a contamination (including an allergen, pathogen or foreign substance) that would normally trigger a recall might simply not happen. Or that producers will self-police effectively enough to step in where the FDA is absent. But considering that the US continues to rate in the top 10 of countries with food-safety recalls, and food-borne illnesses sicken millions of Americans each year with the FDA watchdogs at their post, this is not likely.
At the (literal) ground level, farmers who depend on the Farm Services Administration (FSA) for loans are finding themselves a dollar short, which could mean the suspension of capital improvements and other food production activities.
Those collecting food and nutrition aid managed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) will have to seek food assistance elsewhere.
There are obvious business impacts to brands, such as the possibility of serving or selling tainted food; long-term production problems among supplier-farmers, and even the loss of business supplying foods for programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Then there is the potential impact on the healthcare industry — trying to manage a major public health crisis.
Yet the more subtle impacts are equally insidious and have potentially longer-range impact: the widening of a trust gap that separated consumers from government and from brands during the recessionary economy and hasn’t really closed up dramatically since.
The result is a new hyper-aware consumer who senses danger at every turn, fueled in part by the inability to control the most basic human need: food and drink.
Deprived of a clear sense of control over food quality (after all , your ground meat may look safe, but you can’t see listeria, can you) and abandoned by the trusted agencies that were created to safeguard us all, this consumer is poised to engage in ever more Control Freak behavior over every food interaction to come.
Look for those feelings to intensify, especially if this shutdown drags on or, more disastrously, if a major food-related problem (whether due to contamination or lack of nutrition for those in need) should come to pass.
What does this mean to your brand? Consider this list of action items. You’ll find that they aren’t that different from what we’ve been saying about what the new food-aware consumer now wants, but they may be more urgent now.
- Be transparent: Outline production processes that could help assuage the fear that the process could break without oversight.
- Share: What is your plan for a recall or a shortage?
- Be a good citizen. Can your brand do good by stepping in where furloughed nutritional assistance programs can’t help?
Even if the shutdown ended today, the longer-term sense of anger, unease and distrust could very well remain. After all, the foundation was set back in ’09 in the deepest part of the Great Recession. Given that fact, practices enacted today to address a very current political reality could build long-term partnership opportunities with consumers well into the future.