CHICAGO – During the opening session of the Meat Industry Research Conference, held Oct. 27 in Chicago, presentations addressed consumer challenges and managing operational risks in a down economy. M.I.R.C. is co-sponsored by the American Meat Science Association and the American Meat Institute.

Building consumer trust and confidence in today’s U.S. food chain is particularly challenging for meat companies, according to consumers surveyed on this topic, relayed Charlie Arnot, chief executive officer of the Center for Food Integrity.

"What drives consumer trust?" he asked. Confidence in a company and its products far outweigh other points, he said. Building trust in the food system today may call for reintroducing the food system to consumers because much of the public "doesn’t know who we are or what we do."

In reintroducing the public to the food industry, Mr. Arnot said survey results suggested industry and meat companies target "early adopters" "Get them on board – they are the opinion leaders, folks other people look to, the gatekeepers who drive social change and seek education," he said.

The first place early adopters go for information today is the web, which helps them to make informed choices, he relayed. The web offers an opportunity for industry and companies to reintroduce consumers to the food industry and to build consumer trust and confidence in its products.

In iterating the importance of consumers trusting companies and the safety of their products, Mr. Arnot said, "If they hold you responsible and trust you, you’re golden. If they hold you responsible and don’t trust you, it’s dangerous."

Scott Eilert, Ph.D., vice president of meat technology development with Wichita, Kan.-based Cargill Meat Solutions, said the new economic reality requires new thoughts for technical developments for a sustainable meat industry.

Despite the sluggish economy and companies struggling to raise the bottom line, Mr. Eilert encouraged companies to take risks. "Now is not the time to become too risk adverse," he said. "But don’t be risk naïve."

He described the importance for company teams to focus on key customer needs and to be "rowing together in the same direction" as opposed to "churning"...and hoping to achieve success by using a shotgun approach.

Although Mr. Eilert said zero risk is not achievable in the protein industry since some harmful pathogens are ubiquitous, among other reasons, "We must pursue zero risks as if they are achievable," he added. "Transformational reduction of risk could be possible, perhaps through using technologies such as high-pressure pasteurization, carcass irradiation and product irradiation.

In closing, he presented a slide with an uplifting quote reading, "When you think something is impossible, you focus on barriers. If you believe something is possible, you focus on finding solutions."