By Lisa Lupo

Science tells us if we can. Consumers tell us if we should.

Ever since I heard this statement from Cargill’s Vice President, Corporate Food Safety, Quality & Regulatory Mike Robach at the GMA Science Forum in April, it has played itself over and over in my mind. It’s not a new saying, but the shift of its wording from “Society [or religion] tells us if we should” to “Consumers tell us if we should” brings it closer to home for the food industry and accurately reflects today’s world for manufacturers.

  • Can we use BPA in food packaging? Yes. Should we? ?
  • Can we extend the shelf life of foods with preservatives? Yes. Should we? ?
  • Can we enhance flavor with additives? Yes. Should we? ?
  • Can we genetically modify (or engineer) food? Yes. Should we? ?

Understanding that can means “having the ability, power, or skill” to do something, it’s easy to see that it’s fairly simple to answer the questions “Can we ...”; they are objective; they are science-based. Even if we add the word “safely” to each one, making it a bit more subjective, we can still answer — based on scientific research — a qualified Yes.

However, it’s not quite as simple to answer “Should we ...” particularly in an industry that is continually moving toward more science-based, risk-based assessment of its actions. As defined by Dictionary.com, should is “used to indicate duty, propriety, or expediency” — none of which are based in science or even any universally accepted fact.

Thus, when determining the can and should of an action, the industry must, sometimes, step outside standard operational decision-making practices and consider the consumer perspective, regardless of its basis in science or fact, determining the applicability of the should and making a decision on action or education. Taking one part of the definition of should a step further, the definition of “propriety” is “the condition of being right, appropriate, or fitting.” And what determines these in food production? How can consumers understand what is “right, appropriate, or fitting” if we have kept our doors and rationale closed against them, if we aren’t transparent in our operations, processes, and supply?

As food facilities continue to incorporate preventive controls, increase transparency in the supply chain, and open their doors and books ever wider to federal inspectors to comply with FSMA, why would we not do the same for consumers to help them understand our perspectives of right, the appropriateness of our operations, the fitness of our production practices? And even more critical, why would you not open the perspectives of management to your workers, so they understand your concepts of should and become an advocate of the appropriateness of your production processes as well as your product … assuming, of course, you are doing things right.

The world has changed. Few of us, today, are willing to blindly follow and accept the thinking of “the Establishment,” — i.e., a closed group of people in power that makes rules and policies without input or user consideration (real or perceived). If that hits a little too close to home in your operations, you should probably rethink your entire system — particularly today, because, as found by a FoodThink study cited in QA online (http://bit.ly/247lC), a steady trend of consumers is beginning to turn to the food industry as a trustworthy source of information on the food they eat.

Given the above, we can impact the consumer perspective, so shouldn’t we be making it a priority to do so?

The author is Editor of QA magazine. She can be reached at llupo@gie.net.