Factual information about food production, safety and nutrition, delivered to the right audiences, can shift public perceptions. That’s the approach the International Food Information Council uses in communicating with food companies, government and influencers. Speaking at last week’s National Institute for Animal Agriculture annual conference, IFIC president and CEO David Schmidt described how the 36-member organization partners with groups representing physicians, dieticians, nutritionists and others to communicate science-based information on foods and the food system.

Schmidt describes the group’s ongoing initiative on “processed foods,” as an example of how information can influence public perceptions. He notes that in recent years, the social, economic and political climate have turned negative toward processed foods, with attitudes also influenced by the movement toward locally produced, natural and organic foods.

In 2008, the IFIC conducted a national survey of consumers, mostly women, who serve as the primary shoppers for their households. They found that negative perceptions of processed foods run across demographics, although more affluent, educated consumers were more likely to have negative perceptions. Survey results showed 43 percent of respondents unfavorable, 18 percent favorable and 40 percent neutral toward processed foods. The results also indicated that consumer concerns might not be so much about processing, but rather certain ingredients, including sodium, trans fats and high-fructose corn syrup that were strongly linked to negative perceptions of processed foods. And while the survey results revealed negative perceptions, it showed that consumers place a high value on taste, freshness and safety in their foods.

Using this information, the IFIC developed messages and delivery tools and strategies to address the issue. A key message, Schmidt says, is that the term “processed foods” can mean many things, as most food sold at retail is processed to some extent. Some are minimally processed, some undergo some preparation in addition to packaging, and some are more extensively processed. And in many cases, processing provides clear benefits to consumers in food safety, flavor, convenience, variety and year-round availability of favorite foods. The organization tested these messages with consumer focus groups, and found their favorable ratings for processed foods improved after receiving the information.

 The organization then developed a consumer-education program including a leader guide titled “Understanding our food,” and a tool kit with handouts about foods and food processing, all available on the group’s “FoodInsight” Web site.

IFIC also has played a lead role in a new initiative, Alliance to feed the future, which includes over 50 food-industry groups, universities and others hoping to multiply the impact of positive messages relating to modern food production.