CHICAGO — The biggest mistake food companies can make today is to ignore the small but growing faction of concerned, critical consumers, said Linda Eatherton, partner and managing director of the global food and beverage practice at Ketchum, a public relations agency.

Identified as “food evangelists” in Ketchum’s recently released Food 2020 report, these influential and empowered shoppers are moving from niche to “the new normal,” representing nearly a fourth of the global population today. Such individuals consider where and how food is grown, packaged and labeled, and how the company behind a given product or brand treats the environment and its employees.

Linda Eatherton, partner and managing director of the global food and beverage practice at Ketchum

“One of the things we are continually surprised to see is just how powerful and how passionate this group of individuals is,” Ms. Eatherton told Food Business News. “These are valuable opinion leaders, and we need to rethink who they are and move them out of the critic column and into the critically important column.”

In the United States, food evangelists account for 14% of the population, or about 45 million people, which is up 27% from two years ago. Moreover, the children of these consumers are beginning to adopt similar behaviors, suggesting the incidence of food evangelism will only continue to grow in years to come.

In an interview with Food Business News, Ms. Eatherton explained why companies should care about 14% of the U.S. consumers and how the industry may respond to this new dynamic in the marketplace.

Food Business News: The report notes a shift in the attitudes and behaviors of children regarding food. Why is that significant, and how should the industry respond?

Ms. Eatherton: When you look at children saying that they’re not only looking at labels, that they’re turning away from foods that have certain ingredients in them… To me, that’s very powerful. I didn’t hear that 10, 15 years ago…

We have to start asking ourselves is there a responsibility and a role that we need to play, but not in a marketing sense. I don’t see it as a marketing behavior; I see it as a corporate responsibility behavior. Is there a window and an opening for major food companies to stand out as leaders by pushing for better childhood education about the food supply and the value chain and the food system in general?

Children are now looking at labels and rejecting foods with certain ingredients in them.

I don’t know whether that’s done at school or somewhere else. We know our schools are strapped. But I can’t imagine that answer can possibly be conceived without the leadership of the food industry sitting at the table, having a voice. And by leadership, I mean farmers, producers, processors, suppliers, everyone. We all have a shared responsibility.

How should the food industry engage with food evangelists?

Ms. Eatherton: Marketing seems to be talking to everybody else but them, so they’ve tuned out traditional marketing content and channels, and they’re going to a lot of random sources for information. And this is how they get information mixed up.

But we haven’t stepped up as an industry and taken responsibility for reaching out to the disenfranchised and bringing them back into our fold, our businesses. The only way we do that is by putting a new product in front of them or creating a new offer. That’s not enough. That’s not what they want.

This group of individuals that we call evangelists right now wants to be treated like stakeholders in the business, and if you think about that, how would a food company work with its stakeholders? Would it send them web sites and marketing messages and coupons? No. You’d engage them. You’d talk with them. You’d build a relationship with them. You’d build partnered activities together. This is what this group is looking for.

Building relationships with good evangelists is more practical today because of technology and social media.

Often, I hear very brilliant people in the food industry say, “Well, that’s just lovely, but that’s not practical.” The truth of the matter is it’s actually far more practical today than it’s ever been because we have the ability to do it through technology. There are many companies that are building stakeholder relationships with their customers, and because they have done that, they have been able to sell to them better, and I don’t think every company has mastered that art.

In the U.S., according to the report, food evangelists only represent 14% of the population. Why should the industry care?

Ms. Eatherton: If you ask me why I’d pay attention to them if I’m a marketer, it’s because, first of all, I want to protect my base franchise, and the only way I’m going to do that is if I ensure the evangelist is at least neutral to understanding and is no longer detrimental to my business.

From a corporate reputation standpoint, this is the perfect audience to help build and rebuild your leadership status as a partner and as a concerned, caring person who wants to see a better future for the food industry.

The study reveals a growing preference for food perceived as local and fresh. In light of the recent food safety issues at Chipotle Mexican Grill, which touts its ingredients as local and fresh, could those perceptions change?

Ms. Eatherton: I think there are a couple of ways to look at local. “Local,” like “fresh” and “quality” — those three words have layers of meaning to different people in different parts of the world. What we’re learning in our research is that locale, meaning location, is equally important to proximity, meaning the distance from where the food was produced versus where it was sold…

More and more people want a familiarity with the day-to-day people and operations of a food company. So when they ask for local, I think it’s less about miles and more about familiarity.

Consumers still crave local foods as their concern about where their food comes from escalates.

We’re definitely being challenged here and all around the world by startup companies that are all the rage and frankly are working their way onto retail shelves and getting a lot of attention as the new darling. I don’t think that’s going to go away. I think that level of innovation and variety coupled with proximity and familiarity creates a new definition for premium.

The downside is we do not have an infrastructure in the United States to carefully regulate and inspect every one of those small operations. And I would argue that we need it. We have a tremendously powerful and strong inspection system both at the farm level and within the processing community, but it’s already strained under the weight of responsibilities and a budget that barely covers its responsibilities. If we have a flood of local startups coming on, who’s going to inspect those foods, those processes, their protocols? Are they following best practices? Are they following HAACP? For me, I worry that we don’t have our eye on the ball on that one.