Guest Host: Marc Fisher

Consumers have written letters and signed petitions sent to food manufacturers for generations. Today, the Internet and social media make it easier than ever for shoppers to ask why a company uses potentially harmful chemicals or how they’re sourcing ingredients. We consider the changing communication dynamics between food producers and customers and how they’re affecting what we eat.

Guests

  • Vani Hari founder, FoodBabe.com
  • Scott Talan Assistant Professor, American University School of Communication
  • Stephanie Strom reporter, The New York Times

Transcript

  • 12:32:22

    MR. MARC FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. And whether by talking directly with a farmer or taking part in a letter-writing campaign aimed at a food company, consumers have always been able to share their concerns with food producers. What hasn't always been clear is whether they were being heard. Over the last decade it's become much easier for shoppers to voice their complaints and pleas for change through online petitions and blogs. And in the last few years social media has changed the game even more dramatically, allowing direct access to companies in a very public forum.

  • 12:32:55

    MR. MARC FISHERMany shoppers now taking advantage of that opportunity to encourage or demand change. Companies from General Mills to Chick-fil-A have announced plans to shift their menus or formulas after outcries from fans. Here to talk to us about what's in it for each side and how companies and consumers are keeping up are Stephanie Strom, a reporter for The New York Times, is joining us from New York City. And Scott Talan is a professor of public communication at American University and he's on the line with us here in Washington.

  • 12:33:27

    MR. MARC FISHERAnd, Stephanie Strom, the ways in which consumers and food producers interact has changed pretty dramatically, how has that dynamic evolved and to what end?

  • 12:33:38

    MS. STEPHANIE STROMWell, you know, I've noticed it happening over the last couple of -- maybe year, couple of years. And what happens is that consumers have learned that if they can make a fuss on a company's Facebook page with a lot of people signing on and saying I don't like this, I don't like that or they can mount a Twitter campaign on it, others have resorted to starting petitions on Change.org, which is very easy to start a petition on and they get hundreds of thousands of people signing on saying I want this, too -- they can make companies move in a way that they haven't been able to get them to move in the past.

  • 12:34:18

    FISHERAnd the example you gave in a story you wrote the other day was about a woman who was worried about food dyes, such as the ones that make M&Ms blue. And she was able to actually get some movement.

  • 12:34:31

    STROMWell, the movement hasn't actually happened yet in that case. But what was interesting was that this same woman, Renee Shutters, who lives in upstate New York, she had gone before, you know, testified before the Food and Drug Administration and said, you know, these petroleum based dyes that are used to color a lot of candy, have really affected by son's behavior, his attitudes, etcetera.

  • 12:34:58

    STROMAnd nothing happened. So she gets onto Change.org, puts up a petition, 140,000, 150,000, however many people sign on, and suddenly Mars is starting to hint, Mars is the maker of M&Ms, that at least one of the dyes will be changed to a -- it's actually a dye that's produced using seaweed, the blue color.

  • 12:35:26

    STROMAnd that even more of their dyes will change going forward. They're not saying that outright. Mars is a private company, it's very, you know, plays its strategy very close to the vest, but it does look like it's moving that way.

  • 12:35:39

    FISHERYou can join our conversation about food and social media by calling 1-800-433-8850 or email us at kojo@wamu.org. And, Scott Talan, from American University, in the past, letter-writing campaigns were the way of getting at companies that people felt bothered by in some way. And that's given way to today's blog and Facebook posts. Is it the same phenomenon or is there something fundamentally different at play here?

  • 12:36:10

    MR. SCOTT TALANMarc, it's both. It's the same in that it's the communication going from a customer/consumer to a company. Like you said, could have been letter in the past, the 1-800 number, etcetera. There were avenues there, but it was just one person.

  • 12:36:25

    MR. SCOTT TALANSo what has changed is this digital world we live in where you have this rapid pace, amazing reach and a real chance for influence, if not impact. So in the article you just mentioned, and the mother, well, even if the changes haven't happened yet, she's already influenced things. She's influenced the media, which has written about it. And the companies involved, which are looking at it. And maybe also federal agencies as well. So it's a little bit of both.

  • 12:36:52

    MR. SCOTT TALANIt's some of the same stuff, but really what's changed is that you can have others involved and you can do things a lot more quickly than you could in the past.

  • 12:37:01

    FISHERAnd so what, from the companies perspective, what are they trying to accomplish here? Are they just trying to quiet things down or are they really seeing a way to get folks to rally around their products?

  • 12:37:15

    TALANSome people might think they're trying to just quiet things down and that might happen sometimes, especially if it's a potential crisis and they do want to tamp that down. But if you think about it, companies want to satisfy customers. That's what they want. So what's the best way for them to do that? Is often to listen to them. And in a way this idea of social media and the social conversations can supplement traditional surveys and other research that lets companies know about customers wants and desires. So a company should really be seeking honest feedback in order to improve their product, no matter what it is.

  • 12:37:53

    TALANIt could be a new flavor or it could be use different chemicals. So it's an interesting thing. Companies have a real opportunity to do this and we should be looking at saying, hey, we can help them do this because this is what we want.

  • 12:38:06

    FISHERAnd, Stephanie, how does a company know -- I mean, social media almost by nature is kind of the Wild, Wild West, and there are a lot of voices and it's not clear how to go about figuring out which ones are important. How does a company decide, what's the calculus they use -- whether they're Mars or Chick-fil-A or anyone else -- to know which complaints to take seriously, which one are cranks and which ones really reflect broader concerns?

  • 12:38:34

    STROMWell, you know, unfortunately for the companies, you don't have time to sort of do research on the people who are lobbing things onto your Facebook page. You know, you can get 90, 100 in a minute. So what they're sort of looking at, I think, is the volume. It's very public, right? Anybody can hop on Mars', the M&M Facebook page or the Chick-fil-A Facebook page and see all these nasty comments about this, that or the other, right? So they use, of course, technology. There are a number of relatively new businesses that help them -- basically using algorithms and all sorts of technological stuff -- understand how viral a particular complaint has gone.

  • 12:39:24

    STROMThere's a company, for instance, called Crimson Hexagon, which was founded by a Harvard government professor that many use. They call it human assistance with smart technology. Another one is Buzz Logic. Even Nielsen -- which has long supplied data to government -- has something called Buzz Metrics. And they can tell a company really fast how big the fire is getting.

  • 12:39:52

    FISHERLet's get a little specific about these kinds of complaints and reactions from companies. Joining us from Charlotte, N.C., is Vani Hari. She's an activist who runs the website, FoodBabe.com and she was able to get some pretty quick and clear reactions from companies that she's dealt with. Vani, your blog is giving a platform to voice concerns about preservatives and additives. How did this get started and how did you build your audience?

  • 12:40:22

    MS. VANI HARIHey, thank you so much for having me here. Hey, Stephanie, how are you doing? Great to talk to you, too.

  • 12:40:26

    STROMHi, Vani.

  • 12:40:27

    HARIHey, Scott.

  • 12:40:28

    TALANHello.

  • 12:40:30

    HARISo, you know, I got started because I just wanted to share kind of how my life was changed when I started to remove these preservatives and chemicals from my own diet. And my friends and my family came around me, saw this dramatic transformation. I mean, I look like a completely different person, 10 years younger than 10 years ago in my 20s. And they wanted to know the secret. So I started the blog, I was a consultant, management consultant, working at all the big banks.

  • 12:40:57

    HARIAnd I started the blog just to share my recipes and my advice, my food advice with my friends. And they slowly started to share it with their friends and their families. And it started to pick up pace. And I realized I had not only a voice that I, you know, could get out there but I really could shift the marketplace with my opinion about certain things and my research that I had been doing for over 10 years just based on my own diet changes.

  • 12:41:24

    HARIAnd what I found out very quickly, one of the major things that happened last year was I wrote an article about Chipotle. And Chipotle have had, you know, has this marketing, food with integrity and all of these things. And when I wanted to find out what the ingredients were in their food, I had a hard time figuring out. The employees at the stores wouldn't give it to me. Their headquarters asked me if I had allergies and if that's why I needed to know.

  • 12:41:55

    HARIAnd wouldn't give me the ingredient list, even though they have this fantastic marketing and they're doing all the right things. So instead of, you know, continuing to ask (unintelligible) at first, I made my opinion about that heard and actually ended up getting an employee behind their manager's back to give me some of the ingredients that Chipotle was using. And I found out that they were using GMOs. They were using trans fat in their tortillas.

  • 12:42:22

    HARIAnd other chemical additives that I felt weren't food with integrity. And so, I let everyone know that and it caused quite a bit of stir to the point where Chipotle's communication director, Chris Arnold, reached out to me and started to work with me. I even offered to use my consulting experience to help them get the ingredients online. And what they did was not only did they get the ingredients online six months later, but they actually changed some of the supply as well.

  • 12:42:51

    HARISo they actually removed some of the GMOs before they even released it online. They made some really major changes. And on my birthday last year on March 22nd, I got an email from Chris Arnold that said, ta-da, with a link to the ingredients.

  • 12:43:04

    FISHERWow. So you've had some success. You also, not that long ago, as a result of something you wrote, got invited to Chick-fil-A headquarters for a sit-down. Do you think companies are just trying to get you to quiet down and go away or do they genuinely seem interested in fixing problems?

  • 12:43:22

    HARIWell, in Chick-fil-A's case, I feel like they're genuinely interested. But, again, they are a company and they are out for the bottom line. So, you know, one of the things that I realized in the Chick-fil-A case is that so many people thought that Chick-fil-A was healthier than McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King, etcetera. And when you look down into the ingredients and you see that there's almost close to a hundred ingredients a Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich, people started to realize, wait a minute, this is the same stuff at the other places.

  • 12:43:55

    HARIWhy am I eating this? And there was a big uproar about it. And so, you know, Chick-fil-A has kind of maintained that, you know, healthier fast food mentality and they were really threatened by the articles that I was writing and the articles that were being shared across, who I call the Food Babe Army, the people who are willing to go to the companies' Facebook pages, the Twitter accounts and call the headquarters and meet me at, you know, crack headquarters deliver petition.

  • 12:44:22

    FISHERSo was your visit to Chick-fil-A effective from the company's perspective? Did you change your views after meeting with them?

  • 12:44:30

    HARII did not change my views about the cold hard facts, which are their ingredients are still -- need a lot of improvement. The top two recommendations still have not been implemented, which are picking, you know, choosing a non-factory farmed chicken that doesn't use antibiotics and treats their chickens humanely. And also the use of monosodium glutamate, which causes craving and is linked to obesity.

  • 12:45:04

    HARIIt's consider to kill actual brain cells in your body. And, you know, the thing is with MSG, it's not a big deal. Like, you know, there are so many cultures in Asia that have been using MSG for decades, but they use for just small amount and only on occasion. But here in the United States, it's in almost all of our fast food in some type of hidden form. And that's really concerning. It's why you remember a certain taste or a flavor.

  • 12:45:28

    HARIAnd even though I haven't had a Chick-fil-A sandwich in over seven years, as I'm talking about it, my mouth is salivating because that MSG is there to remind you of that taste and remember that flavor.

  • 12:45:40

    FISHEROkay. So they didn't get you in to eat more sandwiches. But Vani Hari is author of the food blog, FoodBabe.com. And when we come back after a short break, we'll ask Stephanie Strom of the New York Times whether Vani's experience is something that we're going to be seeing more companies going in that direction. I'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi and we'll be back in a moment.

  • 12:47:52

    FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. And we are talking about food and social media. You can join our conversation at 1-800-433-8850. Let us know if you've written to a food company and what kind of response you've gotten. And do you go online for more information about the food you eat. We're talking with Scott Talan, he's a professor of public communication at American University and Stephanie Strom, a reporter for the New York Times.

  • 12:48:19

    FISHERAnd, Stephanie, Vani Hari's experience in getting invited in to the headquarters at Chick-fil-A, is that a very unusual, extreme form of corporate response to complaints or comments on social media or are we seeing more and more of those kinds of tactics?

  • 12:48:35

    STROMI don't know of anyone else that has been invited to corporate headquarters the way Vani has. She's very beautiful, so that could have something to do with it. But I think -- do think that companies are trying to be more responsive to consumers, food companies anyway. I can't speak to the whole word of corporate America.

  • 12:48:59

    STROMYou know, there was the first time I encountered this, there was a 15-year-old who's probably now 16 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi who had mounted a petition to get PepsiCo to take an ingredient called brominated vegetable oil or brominated -- I'm going to get this wrong. So brominated something or other, out of their citrus flavored Gatorade. And the company had said, no, we can't do this. Whatever. Blah, blah, blah, blah.

  • 12:49:28

    STROMAnd, you know, eventually it did do it, it took it out. So, you know, I think food companies in particular, because people have such a special relationship with the food that they eat, can be pushed in these ways.

  • 12:49:47

    FISHERAnd are the concerns that you're seeing voiced on Facebook or Twitter or anywhere else, are they mainly coming from concerned individuals or do you see evidence of organized campaigns? Is there much of an effort by interest groups to rile up people and get in great confrontations with companies?

  • 12:50:08

    STROMWell, it's interesting. Companies never like to say that an interest group has any impact on them. So, you know, they'll deny it. And after the story ran, General Mills announced that it was going to take GMO ingredients out of Cheerios, just the main Cheerios not the brand extensions with honey and all the other stuff. But out of the original Cheerios, they were going to take GMOs out.

  • 12:50:35

    STROMAnd they said, at that time, it was driven by consumers. That was what -- that was why they made the decision to move in that direction. The company spokesman, when I talked to him about this, was insistent that it had not done it in response to pressure from a group called GMO Inside even though that group was claiming it was responsible for the move. So it's hard to know sometimes what move the company.

  • 12:51:06

    STROMAnd in some cases, these petitions and these efforts to change are driven or are at least helped or supported by interest groups. But a lot of times, they're just ordinary human beings.

  • 12:51:22

    FISHERHere's a -- let's go to Chris in Gaithersburg, MD. Chris, you're on the air.

  • 12:51:27

    CHRISHi there, how you doing?

  • 12:51:28

    FISHERGood.

  • 12:51:29

    CHRISGood. You know, this was touched on earlier when one of the previous is guest is talking about the chicken welfare use for Chick-fil-A and how people are increasingly disgusted with how animals raised for food are treated on these industrial factory farms. You know, and yes, there's a lot of -- more and more people are reducing their consumption of animal products. But individuals and animal protection groups are also taking to change.org, Facebook, social media and making some real progress.

  • 12:51:59

    CHRISYou know, for example, mother pigs in the pork industry are locked in metal cages too small for them to even turn around. And there's been a lot of pressure placed on the pork industry. And, you know, some companies like McDonald's and Burger King are pushing their suppliers to move away from that. So there's a still a long way to go before these places could be considered remotely humane. But it's a promising development.

  • 12:52:23

    FISHEROkay. Scott Talan, when you look at these sort of organized campaigns of the sort that Chris is talking about, is that completely a different kind of animal from individuals kind of, you know, posting a rant on Facebook and do and should companies treat those as very different kinds of phenomena?

  • 12:52:46

    TALANSo an interesting question. It gets down to what are you trying to achieve? Is it just to release and vent? Then maybe rant and one comment is enough. And if that, the company might treat it that way. I think it's always important to keep in mind that social media, unlike the tools from before of the letter and the 1-800 number with food companies is a conversation. And that means, you know, you want to listen and learn yourself.

  • 12:53:09

    TALANYou're not there to issue demands. Remove this product now. Well, learn a little bit more about it and you can even use social media to learn about whatever the issue is or what the company does. And what others have done as well, which leads to them partnering with other groups. So I think in the New York Times piece that Stephanie wrote, the Center for Science in Public Interest got involved.

  • 12:53:30

    TALANAnd maybe it doesn't have to be that big of a nonprofit. It can be a local one, organization or just one person. Imagine if you got Mark Bittman, the food columnist, on your side about something. That would help. And I think just for tips and things to think about is, you know, use that company's social networks. So most -- every companies today has networks they use in social media and they'll tell you which ones they are.

  • 12:53:54

    TALANSo use the ones you use but look at what the company uses. And it's not always the number of people. Yes, that is a part of it. Stephanie is right about Crimson Hexagon and other companies and analytics and metrics, but it's also who is involved with your side and who can you get involved. Again, an extreme example, but if you got Michelle Obama on your side for something to do with community gardening and planting and things like that and foods that would probably be helpful.

  • 12:54:21

    TALANBe patient. Companies have many moving parts. And even if they want to make a change they've got to do many things, including perhaps regulation and studies, blah, blah, blah. So it's not like they can just, you know, flip the switch and put a new ingredient in the next day. And I think one thing to keep in mind, you mentioned this Marc, about a person is -- if this is serious to you, tell your story.

  • 12:54:45

    TALANWhatever that is, whether it's something with a child, something you experienced, something you heard about. Don't only just think of just facts and research but tell a story about what happened to you. And I think that's easier for a company to understand and easier for other people too.

  • 12:54:58

    FISHERSo, Scott, you're very reasonably asking that people be rational and calm and organized in how they go about asking companies to change what they put in their foods or whatever else. But is it more dangerous to these manufacturers to have the lone actor who's out there ranting in some completely unreasonable fashion or perhaps saying things that aren't even true. Is that a more dangerous situation for them?

  • 12:55:26

    TALANSo that's a great point. And that's for each company that most likely has a social media policy and guidelines for them to decide. Does it make sense to engage with someone who's really way out there? Yes or no? And sometimes it might make sense just to ignore them because they're so far out there. Now when it comes to factual things, most companies will want to correct those as soon as possible.

  • 12:55:46

    TALANAnd if that is the case, here are the facts. That will probably end it unless the person has their own counter-facts and other research as well. So, now, it depends how extreme you are. You know, so in this day and age, even though there is a lot of ranting and raving on social media, there are still, I think, a broad center of sensible people that are having a conversation out there. And certainly companies are going to be like that.

  • 12:56:10

    TALANThey are most likely not going to rant and rave back. You're not going to get a company too angry and upset that's going to be shouting match in social media. That won't happen.

  • 12:56:19

    FISHERStephanie Strom, you covered the pink slime story some months back. And that was a case where just those words had such power that everywhere on social media people were making decisions about what to buy or what not to buy based really on the power of those words. How does a company deal with the way something like that can spread like wildfire on social media?

  • 12:56:44

    STROMWell, they struggled for a while to deal with that. Cargill, which is one of the biggest ground beef producers in America finally decided that they would just label packages that contained what the industry prefers to call finely textured meat as containing finely textured meat. At the same time, I would note, Cargill has been one of the companies that has most vociferously objected to labeling anything that contains genetically engineered ingredients.

  • 12:57:18

    STROMSo they, you know, this one particular label for finely textured meat or pink slime is one thing. It doesn't mean they're universally labeling everything the way consumers want them to.

  • 12:57:33

    FISHERAnd companies can go too far. There's an interesting piece in New York magazine the other day about companies that sort of appropriate the informal and even inappropriate language from some of the folks posting on Twitter or Facebook. So they've got to be careful about keeping their place and their stature. We've been joined today by Stephanie Strom. She's a reporter for the New York Times.

  • 12:57:58

    FISHERAnd Scott Talan, he's a professor of public communication at American University who spoke earlier with Vani Hari, an activist who runs the website, FoodBabe.org. Thanks very much to all of you. I'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. Thanks for being with us.

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