Despite the fact that America’s food safety infrastructure is the most efficient and effective in the world, the International Food Information Council Foundation’s 2012 Food and Health Survey  found that only 20 percent of Americans are “very confident” in food supply safety. At the same time, one in six U.S. consumers has stopped buying a particular food or beverage brand because of safety concerns in the last twelve months.
Given the rash of high-profile food recalls we’ve seen since 2007, the figure is understandable, even if it isn’t backed up by hard facts. Spinach, tomatoes, peanuts, lettuce, ground beef, and a host of other kitchen table staples all experienced significant incidence of contamination in the last five years. The resulting consumer anxiety got so bad in 2009 that Americans actually put their food safety fears on par with worries about the War on Terror. 
That’s a compelling statistic--and it ought to make farmers and food manufacturers wonder if there’s something else that is contributing to Americans’ fear of food. Even at the 2010 height of salmonella, listeria, and E. coli outbreaks, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data showing that only one in every 125 million meals served in the U.S. had the potential to make a consumer fatally ill . Science supports a conclusion that the food we eat every day is, indeed, safe. So why don’t Americans feel that way?
The answer lies in the fact that statistics can’t compete with emotion when it comes to assuaging anxiety. Numbers don’t move people the way that human drama does--and there are no more dramatic events in the food industry than when a person dies after eating something she believed was safe.
This facet of human nature explains a large part of the equation; but not all of it. There is another factor at play, and it manifests itself in the efforts of those with skin in the food-fear game. Food industry adversaries--the plaintiffs’ bar chief among them--understand how emotion impacts the marketplace. Even more troubling for the food industry, they understand how to manipulate digital and social media strategies to ensure their emotional appeals ring out in the marketplace.
By way of example, when we look at the circumstances surrounding the recent salmonella outbreak that killed two people, sickened 150 , and originated at an Indiana cantaloupe farm, we see just how effective their efforts are at controlling the flow of information on food safety issues. In other words, we see just how good they’ve gotten at controlling search results on Google, the venue more people turn to for information than any other (digital or otherwise).
- Plaintiffs control the keywords. As of this writing, a Google search for the term “cantaloupe outbreak ” lists a law firm as the top sponsored link. A search for “cantaloupe lawsuit ” returns six plaintiffs’ firm sites on the first page. Industry messaging on safety issues is nowhere to be found on the first page of either of these searches. Bottom line--on virtually every food outbreak issue, the plaintiff’s bar is masterfully controlling the dialogue on Google.
- Plaintiffs dominate the blogosphere. When users click those links mentioned above, they are most often directed to blog posts  that outline how the industry failed to keep cantaloupe consumers safe. While the posts provide plaintiffs with an important messaging venue, the blogs themselves ensure high search rank for the posts because they are sources of the frequently-updated content that attracts the Google spiders.
- Plaintiffs use online video. A Google Video search for “cantaloupe listeria lawsuit” features two plaintiff-produced videos in the top three results . Just like the blog posts mentioned above, these videos don’t paint the industry as a responsible steward of public health. And as Google increasingly emphasizes the spoken word over the written one, these videos further optimize plaintiffs’ messaging.
- Plaintiffs geo-target. As mentioned above, a Google search for “cantaloupe lawsuit” returns one plaintiff-maintained link. At the same time, a Google search for “cantaloupe lawsuit Kentucky” (one of the hardest hit states during the outbreak) returns two sponsored links . That tells us that at least one firm is targeting its efforts to the geographic areas where its messages will resonate most.
What all of this means is that the plaintiffs’ bar is operating in a virtual information vacuum when contamination strikes the food and beverage industry. “Within the legal community, they are simply outworking and outsmarting the other side when it comes to online communication,” says Bob Hibbert , a partner at Morgan Lewis & Bockius  who has worked on number of high-profile food safety issues. “It’s clearly in the best interest of the food industry, and of the people who represent it, to mount a more effective response to this challenge.”
Fortunately, leveling the playing field doesn’t require any great strategic leap. Food manufacturers need to understand that the same tactics driving high levels of consumer anxiety can be employed to diminish it as well. Specifically, food companies should:
- Own their risk terms and keywords. Plaintiffs’ keyword dominance exists because food manufacturers don’t own the risk terms that their consumers use to find information on the latest safety crises. While they likely optimize their Web properties for terms related to their products (“tomato,” “spinach,” ”cantaloupe,” etc.), they don’t do the same for terms such as “foodborne illness,” “recall,” “lawsuit,” or “outbreak”--and that enables the plaintiffs’ bar and other adversarial voices to dominate the conversation. At the moment an instance of contamination is discovered, food companies need to engage in Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Marketing (SEM) campaigns that rank their response messages at the top of the list when their risk terms are queried. Even better, food manufacturers that do the same in peacetime not only eliminate the need to scramble when trouble arises; they create a compelling safety narrative that plaintiffs will have to overcome.
- Address the blogosphere. Plaintiffs’ attorneys maintain blogs as a means to provide a steady stream of optimized content that keeps their messages front and center on search engines. They know that if they are active all the time, the Google spiders will elevate their sites when a food recall hits and it comes time to troll for class action clients. By blogging about all the ways they work to diminish the possibility of contamination, food manufacturers can also create the salient, frequently-updated content that ranks on Google when consumers seek information on food safety.
- Engage via video. Food manufacturers that reach out to consumers with engaging video content not only provide themselves a leg up on the SEO front; they establish the emotional connections needed to bridge the safety perception gap. Articulating food safety statistics such as those cited above merely tells people their food is safe. Video shows them why they should consume with confidence. With video content that highlights safety procedures and the men and women charged with carrying them out, food manufacturers can powerfully articulate a commitment to safety that sticks with their audience. By going a step further with how-to videos that outline healthy food preparation steps, they can themselves take on the identity of true consumer advocates.
- Be where the fear is. When an outbreak does occur, the companies at the center the problem--as well as those whose brands may be tarnished by mere association--need to target their messages to affected populations. Not only does geo-targeting streamline their optimization efforts by focusing resources where they are need most; it enables companies to directly reach the very consumers most likely to change their buying and eating habits as a result of a contamination incident.
Richard Levick, Esq., President and CEO of LEVICK , represents countries and companies in the highest-stakes global communications matters--from the Wall Street crisis and the Gulf oil spill to Guantanamo Bay and the Catholic Church. Mr. Levick was honored for the past three years on NACD Directorship’s list of “The 100 Most Influential People in the Boardroom ,” and has been named to multiple professional Halls of Fame for lifetime achievement. He is the co-author of three books, including The Communicators: Leadership in the Age of Crisis , and is a regular commentator on television, in print, and on the web.
[Image: Flickr user Hejl ]