business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

In the age of information, is it possible that people know both too much and too little? And, if so, is the role of the industry changing forever?

If not, it should.

This came through to me recently while out supermarket shopping. A woman nearby announced to her husband that she wanted to make certain she avoided any foods with GMOs in them.

I couldn’t resist. “What’s a GMO?, “ I asked politely. She looked at me quizzically and then admitted she didn’t know. It didn’t make a difference though; she didn’t want them in her food.

Had this woman been anyone other than my sister, I might have dropped the conversation. “If you don’t know what they are, how do you know they aren’t good for you?” I had to ask.

At that point my sister promised to slug me. Yet the exchange bothered me for bigger reasons. My sister is knowledgeable, well educated and articulate. I expected her to respond to my first question with a detailed explanation of why she avoids GMOs. Instead, she avoids GMOs without a clue that they stand for genetically modified organisms. She avoids them because she heard she should.

Later that week, I caught an ever-present “info-mercial” on television. It featured Kevin Trudeau hawking another one of his books that promise to blow the cover off all health, wellness, nutritional and whatever secrets. I suggest you Google “Kevin Trudeau scam” to get a sense of just how completely unqualified he is to write any of those books, but he writes them, sells them and…people buy them and believe them. Nature abhors a vacuum. So, apparently does information.

I’m no scientist, but I can understand a lot of reasons why GMOs could be beneficial, especially in helping us develop crops that are healthier and less damaging to the environment. And I can understand the concerns. I can see why cloning could help provide better food supplies for our changing world. And I can see why they frighten people and raise a wide range of questions. These are complex issues that deserve, but rarely get, knowledgeable debate.

Without information from trusted sources, reasoned debate loses. When the government pronounces cloned animals fit for the food supply without promising education or labeling, the forces of ignorance get all the ammunition to control the debate. Shoppers can logically ask, if cloning is so good, why wouldn’t they tell us? It’s a compelling question with no answer.

It’s not just about controversial issues. Without balanced information on healthier eating, wellness and the world of choices, the information vacuum can get filled in very strange ways. Whether we like it or not, the world has changed and the consumer expectations of the food industry have changed with it.

Forty years ago, the supermarket could proudly proclaim it was the purchasing agent for the consumer and could make it work. After all, that’s what stores did. They winnowed the choices for the shopper, provided ample supplies of those choices and grew to success. It’s a role the industry has to this very day.

Next, the store became the extension of the home kitchen moving full force into step saving methods to make mealtime easier than ever for time-pressed shoppers. It’s a movement that continues to this day in each and every section of the store.

Today it seems the industry (not just the store) is moving into a new era. Now information is king and the industry has to decide how to become the trusted “purchasing agent of information.” That means telling the good and the bad (think of Hannaford’s Guiding Stars); it means providing the details on what matters. It means explaining sourcing and science. It means becoming a partner to give nutritional information to today’s health-worried shopper.

It won’t be an easier than the previous turns of the evolutionary wheel, but the time for this new role is here. And the industry can’t seize it quickly enough or we run the risk that other voices will drown out ours.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at .

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