This week I had the honor to participate in a panel discussion sponsored by the Independent Women’s Forum, the Global Health Center, and Monsanto. The panel, titled “Food and Fear: How to Find Facts in Today’s Culture of Alarmism,” was held at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. As you might imagine from the title of the event, we discussed the fear-based food marketing tactics that have become ever so prevalent these days.
This topic of food and fear is particularly close to home and one of the reasons I was so eager to participate in the event. In fact, one of the reasons I started writing about farming and agriculture was this very type of marketing. When I graduated law school, the so-called “pink slime” controversy was just started to heat up. I saw a rise on social media of people warning others not only of the dangers of meat additives, but also about all aspects of our food system. The message was quite clear: the food we were eating had been tampered with, it was hurting us, and people needed to make better choices at the grocery store. Unfortunately, these better choices usually meant purchasing food with a particular label, particularly USDA certified organic. As my social media friends heralded, this was the only way to make sure our food was produced safely and would not make us sick.
But as a farmer’s daughter, even one that had just spent three years away from the farm at law school, I knew this message was false.
For 27 years, our family raised fruits and vegetables to sell at our own roadside stand. I knew the pride and care that went into planning each season, growing each plant, and tending each piece of fruit. I understood that quality and safety was key — our customers wanted produce that looked nice and tasted good. We wanted them to come back, so it was important to meet those demands. I also personally indulged in copious amounts of those fruits and vegetables, even eating some of it right after plucking it from the plant (no washing!), and trusted that it was not going to hurt me.
That is why one of the most surprising, if not satisfying, responses I have gotten from all of my work as the farmer’s daughter comes from consumers who have a new approach to grocery shopping. Over the years, several people have told me that my writing and work has allowed them to feel more relaxed at the grocery store. They no longer worry about whether the food on the shelves is going to make them sick, or slowly poison their families. They are no longer concerned about purchasing a certain label on their produce. Best of all, they no longer spend more money for a product that boasts about fear-based marketing gimmicks (“no added hormones in our poultry!”).
If that seems rather fantastical to you, as it admittedly did to me, consider that recent research confirms that fear-based food marketing has a negative impact on shoppers. A study performed at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Center for Nutrition Research surveyed low-income consumers about what types of information influences their shopping decisions regarding fruits and vegetables. The results, which were published in Nutrition Today, showed that these consumers worried more about certain conventionally grown produce having higher pesticide residues than organically grown produce, making them more unlikely to purchase any fruits and vegetables at all. In other words, the scare tactics associated with certain labels actually made low-income shoppers forego the healthy food altogether!
The idea that a person would go to the grocery store and feel confusion, anxiety, or fear about the decisions they are about to make makes me sad, angry, and extremely frustrated. We live in a time and country where we don’t have to worry about our food supply because it is the safest, best, and more abundant in in the world and history. Absent some extraordinary considerations, no one should feel worry and stress about making food choices for their family.
Shame on anyone who makes consumers feel that way.
That’s why I was so happy to participate in an event discussing these issues and bringing to light how fear-based marketing gimmicks hurt people. I want consumers to feel the confidence and trust that I feel in American farmers. I want them to understand that our food supply is, overwhelmingly, safe and nutritious. I want them to recognize when someone is selling them fear instead of facts. I want them to walk into the grocery store and feel pride in the wonderful, affordable food that is being offered.
And I will continue having this discussion until I know that everyone feels that way.
Amanda Zaluckyj blogs under the name The Farmer’s Daughter USA. Her goal is to promote farmers and tackle the misinformation swirling around the U.S. food industry. Amanda’s website can be found here, and she’s on Facebook, and Twitter.