Center for Food Integrity: Disconnect exists between trust, responsibility for consumers
In recent research, the Center for Food Integrity (CFI) sought to “unpack the dangerous disconnect between trust and responsibility for safe, health food,” said CFI CEO Charlie Arnot. “In the consumer’s mind, there is a bit of a disconnect.”
He continued people in the food system think of safe food in terms of pathogens and illness, whereas consumers tend to view safe food as healthy food.
“We want to detail ways to close the gap, and we want to dig into where consumers get their information, learn what they look for and who they trust and explore current attitudes towards trust,” Arnot said.
In late January, CFI unveiled their latest research looking at the connection between trust and food safety.
Looking for information
As consumers are bombarded with varying degrees of information from a wide variety of sources, Arnot explained they are forced to turn to places other than the media for information, particularly when it comes to groups entrusted to ensure safe food.
“Out of the 11 groups consumers were asked to rate, they trusted family, a family doctor, dieticians, farmers, university scientists and nutrition advocacy groups most,” he said. “Fifty-five percent of people have complete trust in their family.”
Of those surveyed, 41 percent trusted farmers to ensure safe food.
“One of the things we see in our research is a lack of trust in regulatory agencies and food companies,” Arnot said. “If regulatory agencies aren’t trusted, who are people going to rely on? We have to talk about what it takes to restore trust.”
For example, when the subject of safe and healthy food comes up, trust in food companies is difficult, but Arnot explained, “The good news for food companies and regulatory agencies is the majority of people are still in the middle.”
“Let’s look at the disconnect between those who are trusted and those who are responsible,” Arnot said. “There is a gap and a problem here.”
Federal regulatory agencies are ranked first in responsibility for safe, healthy food, but they are rated eighth in trust. Food companies were rated second for responsibility, but 11th in terms of trust.
“We do see some folks who are fairly well aligned in terms of responsibility and trust for food safety,” he said. “Farmers are third in both categories.”
Arnot summarized, food companies and state and regulatory agencies are in a challenging position, but farmers have an opportunity to leverage their position for the food industry.
Additionally, CFI sees opportunity for dieticians, university scientists and nutrition advocates because they are trusted, but aren’t held responsible for food safety.
“There is more of a chance to rely on dieticians, university scientists and nutrition advocates for messaging,” Arnot explained.
Managing the disconnect
When a disconnect exists between trust and responsibility, Arnot said one of two actions is possible, including more regulation and oversight or increased cost.
“We need to restore trust,” he said, noting that costs include losing clients, increased regulation, loss of consumer confidence, increased operating cost, loss of reputation and reduced employee satisfaction. “There are significant economic and social consequences.”
To build trust, improving public perception is important.
“Whether in the government, corporate or other worlds, we have the freedom to operate right now,” Arnot explained. “Social license is the privilege to operate with minimal formal restriction based on public trust.”
“It’s important to operate in a way that is consistent with social expectations and consumer values,” he added. “When we operate by social license, we get to operate that way because we meet a set of expectations, and in doing so, we’re granted flexibility and lower costs.”
Three factors help to build trust and, thus, improve social license.
“The first factor is the role of influential others,” Arnot said. “The role of influential others continues to evolve.”
Historically, family, friends and other credentialed individuals are respected and drive conservations as “influential others.” Today, relatability is also a factor.
“The next factor is competence,” he said. “That’s where our science comes in. Science equals credibility. We’re very good at this piece.”
Finally, confidence is the third factor, which is one of the biggest drivers in trust.
“We surveyed 6,000 individuals, and we found shared values are three to five times more important to building trust than competency,” Arnot explained. “We can’t abandon fact, but our case has to be started by leading with values.”
He continued, “We have to talk about maintaining a sustainable balance. If values are the foundation for building trust, we can’t abandon science, but at the end of the day, we have to be economically viable, as well.”
Today’s consumers, however, are also changing, asking what we should be doing, rather than what we can we doing.
Arnot said, “We need to engage in asking the question, ‘What should we be doing?’”
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.