It may seem like a silly question, but the impression given In Defense of Food is that somehow outside groups like the Food Companies, Food Scientists or Nutritionists dictate what we eat. Apart from someone that is institutionalized, like in a prison, the rest of us of course decide what to buy and what to spend our money on. Accepting personal responsibility is avoided if we just blame someone else for our choices and problems. Unfortunately taking personal responsibility for our decisions (such as what we eat, how much we eat and how much activity we wish to do) is not a theme in this book. The Go Big Read program is a great opportunity to engage in this dialogue. Food scientists can help inform us (as we are all consumers of food) of what is the current “science” on a topic and they challenge us to question our assumptions about food.
Compared to even 50 years ago we now have an incredible variety of foods available and we also have made huge progress in improving food safety over this time. Of course having more food choices available can be confusing. An important point I wish to make here is that food companies do not control what consumers will buy. Companies, not just food companies but any company that wants to stay in business, spend a lot of money and time trying to understand consumers. They undertake market and consumer research in an effort to try to understand what is important to consumers and what trends are altering consumers purchasing decisions. Consumers are exposed to a wide range of influences including new fads and diets (in the past 10 years or so we have seen the emergence of various popular diets such as Atkins, South Beach Diet, Nutrisystem, Low Carb, etc). Nowadays, consumers are exposed to a lot more new ideas but also more fads and bad science through Cable TV, Internet, blogs, and the rise of networking sites like Facebook. Food companies respond to these (or emerging) consumer trends by trying to re-position (market) their existing products or introduce new products. There is a high risk (and cost) associated with developing or launching new products, and marketing is heavily involved because if the consumer does not want this product then the product will fail. The difficulties that food companies face in developing new products can be demonstrated by the failure within 6 months of a high percentage of new products that are launched. It is in this context that we should view the changes that we have seen in the types of foods in stores and how they are marketed over the past 20 years.
Another aspect to the impact that consumers have on the food industry can be seen by the reluctance of food companies to use new technologies unless there is consumer acceptance of that technology. Some technologies they know could greatly benefit the safety of foods for consumers. An example is irradiated foods which have been accepted as safe by groups such as World Health Organization (WHO), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In particular, it is a promising technology for the treatment of raw meat which is routinely the cause of food poisoning outbreaks. Because NASA is fearful of astronauts getting food poisioning while they are in space their foods are irradiated. As we discuss what’s in our food and how it is produced I hope we will realize that with any technology there is always a risk and a possible benefit. We just have to decide if any suggested risk is real and how significant, and then decide if the benefits outweigh the risks. We also need to understand that rejection of some new technology or science also means we “lose” the benefits that might have resulted from the utilization of that approach.
Professor John A. Lucey
Department of Food Science
University of Wisconsin-Madison