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Spring 2016 Issue

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Purdue Agriculture > Agricultures Magazine > Cautious Consumers

Engagement Initiative

Purdue Agriculture's Issues 360 Fellows program provides educational experiences for students to help them become more skilled in engaging in issues without advocating or positioning one side against another. This is the second of three articles about the program.

Cautious Consumers

Public's Trust in Food System Tied to Industry's Openness

By Keith Robinson

Terry FleckTerry Fleck

The food industry must openly demonstrate to consumers that it has their best interests in mind as the public becomes increasingly wary of government and big business, research by an organization dedicated to building confidence and trust in the food system shows.

"The reality is trust in our food system is very fragile," said Terry Fleck, executive director of the Center for Food Integrity.

Fleck spoke to Purdue University College of Agriculture faculty, staff and students during the 2014 spring semester as part of the college's Issues Engagement Initiative. The initiative includes the new Issues 360 Fellows program that provides educational experiences for students to help them become more skilled in engaging in issues without advocating or positioning one side against another.

Fleck presented findings from the center's 2013 Consumer Trust in the Food System research survey, which provides companies and other organizations a roadmap for building the public's trust through transparency. Details of the research are available here.

The not-for-profit Center for Food Integrity, based in Gladstone, Mo., was established in 2007 to build consumer trust and confidence in today's food system. Its members include farmers and ranchers, and representatives of universities, food processors, restaurants, retailers and food companies. Purdue is a member.

Fleck said the center's role is not to advocate for the industry but to provide credible information that will help consumers make the best decisions about their food.

"At the end of the day, I'm not overly concerned about the choice they make; I just want them to make an informed choice," he said.

How the Public's Mistrust Developed

Fleck noted that the public has been showing greater distrust in the food industry in recent years. The big question is why that is so.

"What happened that consumers are much more interested (today) in how their food is made?" he asked rhetorically. That, he said, is related to the public's increasing distrust of government but also of institutions in general.

He traced the skepticism to 1968, a time of increasing civil unrest as a result of the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and presidential candidate Sen. Robert Kennedy, disturbances at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and rising public opposition to the Vietnam War.

These events were followed by the fatal shootings of four students at Kent State University by the Ohio National Guard during a campus protest in 1970, then by the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974 amid the Watergate scandal. Even later, in 1989, the oil spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound from the Exxon Valdez deepened the public's mistrust of large corporations.

"It was mistrust that shaped an entire generation," Fleck said.

As the production of food has become industrialized, Fleck said, the public increasingly sees it as an "institution" to be questioned, its motives to be doubted.

What Causes Social Outrage?

Fleck noted that distrust sometimes leads to "social outrage," caused by lack of transparency and other factors such as intentional wrongdoing and intentionally misleading consumers.

Such sentiment followed a network television news report in 2012 about the beef product "pink slime." (The meat industry uses the term "lean finely textured beef.") Fleck said including it in products for the public's consumption met two criteria necessary for the issue to create social outrage: It raised a high level of concern among people who also believed that it had a high level of impact on them.

That was especially the case when parents learned that the product was used in school lunch programs. The issue hit home with them. Speaking as a hypothetical parent might have expressed it, Fleck said: "I had a concern about this before, but now my children are eating it from a government food system that I have no control over. I want it out of here!"

CFI's survey showed that three issues generating the most "high impact and high concern" among respondents were the affordability of food, the affordability of healthy food specifically and food safety. Respondents considered the issue of humane treatment of animals of moderate impact and concern.

The Need for Transparency

One big reason for mistrust is the public's perception of "Big Food"–large corporations in the food industry. "Big Food is bad in the mind of the consumer," Fleck said.

The research affirmed what the industry had already surmised: The public thinks small farms and small food companies are more trustworthy than big farms or big food companies. Ninety-four percent of participants said large food companies were likely to put their own interests ahead of the public's; 93 percent said the same about large farms.

Fleck said the industry can build trust among consumers by becoming more "transparent," such as by admitting mistakes and accepting responsibility for them, being willing to engage critics, sharing information about the bad as well as the good in ways that consumers can clearly understand, and by being truthful and reliable.

CFI measured 33 attributes of trust-building transparency, with more than half of the participants strongly agreeing with their importance. Among them were:

  • Motivation: The company is interested in the well-being of people like me, not just itself, and wants to be accountable for its actions.
  • Disclosure: The company is forthcoming with information that might be damaging to the company but important to me, and it provides information in a timely fashion.
  • "Stakeholder" participation: The company takes the opinions of people like me into account when making decisions.
  • Relevance: The company provides information that is meaningful to people like me.
  • Clarity: The company provides information that is easy for people like me to understand.
  • Credibility: The company is willing to share plans for corrective action from mistakes.
  • Accuracy: The company provides information that is complete and does not leave important information out.

In the end, consumers want to know that a company shares their values, Fleck said. "The consumer asks 'Are you someone like me, and can I really trust you to do what's right even if no one is looking?'"

He said that is even more important for large companies to understand. "The larger you become, the more you need to be communicating your values because people automatically assume you have none."

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