While consumer concern over general food safety is on the uptick, concern about milk safety remains lower than for many other commodities. This gives you a perfect opportunity to hone your message and get good information out to consumers before they go into crisis mode.

One thing to remember is that in an environment where consumers have an underlying trust in the milk-safety system, they are less prone to probe for specific information on how the government and the dairy industry ensure milk safety, says David Pelzer, senior vice president of industry image and relations at Dairy Management Inc., which manages the national dairy-checkoff program.

With that in mind, here are some dos and don’ts when it comes to communicating dairy’s message to consumers.

1. Do tap into your status as a trusted spokesperson.

Recent research reveals that dairy producers are still the best spokespersons for their industry. People are going to believe what you say above messages from individuals or organizations without a dairy connection. Therefore, you are the most credible authority for all things dairy — from animal care to milk safety.

That same research also shows that the public has somewhat less trust in any organization that has an assumed agenda, including dairy industry organizations. It should be noted, however, that the National Dairy Council has a higher level of consumer trust than many other food industry organization.

2. Do recruit other credible sources.

Make sure affiliated industry has the proper dairy facts and is willing to share them with consumers. Veterinarians, especially, make good information partners. Research conducted by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association found that consumers see veterinarians as having scientific and medical expertise, along with being objective.

3. Do tell a story.

Extensive consumer research conducted by DMI indicates that the best way to communicate with consumers is to tell a story, rather than simply reciting facts and data. In general, consumers are wary about receiving too much information. They simply want enough to reassure themselves that milk and dairy products remain safe for their family to consume, says Pelzer.

4. Don’t get too technical.

You may be justifiably proud of your dairy’s low somatic cell count, but most consumers are baffled by this measure. “They have no idea what SCC is and whether a number is good or bad, high or low,” says Pelzer. Leave this figure out of your discussions with consumers. Mastitis discussions don’t fare well with consumers, either.

Instead, focus on what the industry does to ensure milk quality, like cleanliness, proper milking procedures and rigorous testing procedures, at every stage of milk’s journey to the consumer.

5.  Don’t dodge the antibiotic question.

This is a big concern among consumers, even though producers know that milk shipped to processors does not contain antibiotics, says Stacey Stevens, DMI director of nutrition and industry affairs. “It was a common question at a recent meeting of the American Dietetic Association,” she says.

“When we explain to focus groups or individual consumers that every tanker of milk undergoes rigorous testing for antibiotics — at the farm, and several times at the plant to make sure antibiotics do no enter the milk supply — consumers didn’t know that,” adds Pelzer. “But they are pleasantly surprised by this fact and it has an impact. Consumer confidence and trust goes up when they hear this message.”

For more information

Check out these Web sites to learn more about consumer attitudes and how to communicate with consumers.