Food distrust is growing among consumers.

CHICAGO — How do you make a room full of food scientists laugh? Expose some of the modern-day misconceptions many consumers have about the foods they eat or don’t eat.

That was the theme of a July 14 panel discussion at the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and food exposition in Chicago. Although today’s food businesses face serious challenges regarding consumer perception, the presentation, entitled “Is Big Food Bad Food?”, featured a few moments of levity. Participants chuckled while viewing a clip from a late-night talk show in which consumers who claimed to eat a gluten-free diet were asked to define gluten — and nobody could.

Whether it’s gluten, genetically modified organisms or artificial sweeteners, the list of ingredients consumers are avoiding continues to grow, and food companies must do a better job of educating the public, said the panel of executives, which included David Cotton, chief executive officer of Flying Food Group; James Borel, executive vice-president of DuPont Pioneer; and Eric Larson, chairman, managing partner and co-founder of Linden Capital Partners.

But that may be easier said than done, Mr. Borel said.

James Borel, executive vice-president of DuPont Pioneer.

“As companies, we may not be the most credible because (consumers) question our motives, regardless of how pure those are,” Mr. Borel said. “There’s a flipside we need to think about, too. We try to find what the consumers are asking for, and you have to do that. This is a consumer-driven industry. But we need to be a little careful that while we’re appealing to customer segments or consumer interests, that we don’t inadvertently imply that some of their unfounded fears are true. How do you make gluten-free available without making it sound like everybody needs to be gluten-free?

“It’s a challenge and a bit of a fine line, but I think we need to pay attention to that as companies.”

Similarly, how can food manufacturers stand behind the science and safety of bioengineered ingredients while bowing to consumer demand to remove them from products?

“It’s important for all of us in the food industry to be willing to listen to whatever point of view people have and try to see if there is something in there that’s common ground, something we need to pay attention to, and something we can adapt,” Mr. Borel said. “But we also need to continue to advance science and stand behind science-based regulations and organized, consistent labeling, so people have the information that can give them the assurance they need.”

In recent years, distrust of the food industry has become a growing sentiment among consumers. However, Mr. Larson suggested, “there’s a higher level of distrust everywhere — not just the food industry.”

To regain confidence, companies must not inundate consumers with science, but rather communicate in ways with which they are comfortable.

The list of ingredients consumers are avoiding continues to grow.

“Each generation is communicating in a different way... we just need to recognize that,” Mr. Borel said.

Added Mr. Borel: “I think there’s tremendous transparency that can be provided, (but) we do need to recognize that one of the reasons we have a pretty affordable food supply is because we’ve built a commodity-based system for a lot of bulk ingredients that’s really efficient and doesn’t lend itself to traceability.

“There are some things where there will be tradeoffs, and if people really want the traceability they need to be willing to pay for the added cost of identity preservation, and the markets will respond. Hopefully we can have it be market-driven, and the people who really want the artisanal things can have those, and the ones who really need the affordable but safe, reliable food supply can get that.”