A study by the Center for Food Integrity (CFI) found there is a "trust deficit" that exists between consumers and food companies, federal regulators and farmers. Only 33% of survey respondents said they "strongly agree" that they are confident in the safety of the food they eat, compared to 47% in 2017.
Only 25% of respondents believe U.S. meat is derived from humanely treated animals, and a mere 30% strongly agree that American farmers take good care of the environment, compared to 42% in 2017. Less than half of respondents (44%) said they had a positive impression of food manufacturing.
“I am often asked why consumers have a certain, often inaccurate, impression of the food system,” Roxi Beck, director at CFI, said in a release. “My response is simple: because farmers and food companies haven’t engaged consumers in a way that addresses their underlying concerns. The food system is making great strides toward transparency and responsiveness, which is tremendous, but there is more work to be done.”
Federal regulators, food companies and farmers are the top three groups consumers hold responsible for food safety, but they aren't the most trusted entities. In its latest research, CFI places food companies dead last on a list of eleven sources for trusted information. Federal regulatory agencies are eighth, while farmers come in third.
Instead of the food makers and regulatory agencies, consumers place more trust on family and physicians for information on food safety. To rebuild consumer trust, Beck suggests inviting consumers to onsite tours of farms and manufacturing facilities.
"The ‘ah-ha’ moments are often dramatic when consumers see and hear for themselves how food is produced," she said in a statement. "This is because they’ve made a personal connection with the individual expert, which allows the conversation to move forward.”
CFI also cautions manufacturers about emphasizing the wrong information in order to engage their customers. As an example, the report outlined that a company may be proud of its large size and global scale, but these attributes could be viewed as a warning sign to consumers who are wary of Big Food corporations and their practices.
It may be more impactful for food companies and grocery manufacturers to instead communicate their "smallness." Since only a quarter of CFI survey respondents believe meat comes from humanely treated animals, brands could create website platforms that show farmers interacting with their livestock, or add attractive, eye-catching images of their animals or farms on product packaging or in-store signage.
"Enhance communication regarding animal well-being on the farm," the report advises. "Posting videos and/or pictures online, along with stories from the farm, increases transparency and helps build trust."
Investing in transparency-boosting technology like blockchain could also help strengthen a brand's image. In November, Cargill tested blockchain that would allow consumers to trace their individual Honeysuckle White Thanksgiving turkey from the farm it was raised on to the grocery store. Each turkey had a code on its packaging that consumers can enter into HoneysuckleWhite.com, which linked them to one of four Texas farms that participated in the pilot.
Acquiring blockchain, updating product packaging and creating a corresponding website and mobile app certainly isn't cheap, but it could prove a lucrative move as consumer demand for transparency grows. A study from Response Media found 99% of consumers would pay more for fresh transparent products, and 98% for packaged transparent products.
Not every company will have the bandwidth or the cash to undergo initiatives as extensive as blockchain-backed traceability, but CFI's report shows that it's imperative food companies change the way they tell their brand's stories. Major food manufacturers may need to work a bit harder, as many consumers find small, regional brands more approachable and authentic.
Nestle USA is focusing its marketing efforts on "closing the mystery gap about what is going on behind the logo" by spotlighting the company's workers, farmers and suppliers, Liz Caselli-Mechael, manager of corporate communications, told Food Dive last year.
“Trust is a factor in purchasing decisions and in long-term brand loyalty for purchases, and trust is something you have to invest in with the consumer every day. It takes a lot to gain and not that much to lose,” Caselli-Mechael said. "[Our executives] see the value in driving these human connections and investing in reputation and trust.”
If companies can improve the level of trust with their consumers, it could have a meaningful impact on their bottom line that far outweighs the initial investment.