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Consumers Want Food Companies to Pull Back the Curtain

Most consumers have no direct link to agriculture and food production, unlike past generations. As a result, food producers must commit to communicating the ethical foundation of their work.
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Shirley Almer was a Minnesota grandmother with a lot to celebrate.

She beat cancer not once, but twice. Then, a simple decision to spread peanut butter on her toast proved deadly. She fell gravely ill and passed away four days before Christmas in 2008. The cause of death was determined to be salmonella poisoning and was traced to a jar of peanut butter.

In fact, an alarming number of salmonella cases in the fall of 2008 were linked to peanut butter from Peanut Corporation of America's facility in Blakely, Ga. Investigators and media converged on the plant. Conditions discovered inside were disgusting. A leaky roof let rain water drip on containers of food. Rats, insects and mold were present. Birds flew in and out of open windows, leaving droppings behind.

A nationwide recall was issued on more than 3,600 different products, including peanut butter, cookies, crackers, cereal, candy and even pet treats. In all, more than 700 people in 46 states were sickened with salmonella. Nine died.

The investigation uncovered something even worse than unsanitary conditions. Peanut Corp. and owner Steve Parnell had knowingly sold unsafe, salmonella-tainted food. Last year, a jury found Parnell guilty on 71 counts including conspiracy, interstate shipments fraud, obstruction of justice and introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce with intent to defraud or mislead. He was sentenced to 28 years in prison.

Parnell's actions and lack of transparency are indefensible. This case, and others like it, contribute to an erosion of public trust in the companies and organizations involved in food production today.

Traditionally, public trust of our food and the people who grow it have been taken for granted. Family farms and all they represent are deeply rooted in our culture. Thomas Jefferson extolled the yeoman farmer as the backbone of democracy. As the food system has become more integrated, with larger farms and companies producing food, the public wonders whether the food system is still worthy of their trust.

Earning consumer trust is critical for farmers and companies involved in food production. The reality that our food is safer than ever before - and remarkably affordable - can be overshadowed by a lack of trust. So, how do producers and food companies earn trust? What do consumers want from them? The answer, in part, is transparency.

The Center for Food Integrity's (CFI) 2015 consumer trust research proves that as those in the food system increase transparency, they will also increase consumer trust. The link between transparency and trust is real, direct and powerful. But, transparency can be an elusive term, so CFI set out to define it.

We asked consumers who they hold most responsible for demonstrating transparency when it comes to food production. Food companies? Farmers? Grocery stores? Restaurants? Our research shows that consumers hold food companies most responsible not only for areas we might expect like labor and human rights and business ethics, but also for the impact of food on health and the environment, food safety, and even animal well-being.

The online survey of 2,000 people also asked precisely what consumers want and expect food producers to be transparent about - policies, practices, performance or verification. Consumers responded that it's transparency in a company's or organization's practices that count most toward building trust. That's because practices are a demonstration of a company's values in action, and our research shows shared values are the foundation for building trust.

Information included on food product labels, consumer engagement opportunities offered through company websites and protecting whistleblowers were noted as important practices in demonstrating transparency. Those practices are reflective of an organization's values and a good predictor of trust.

Food companies that believe these are not their issues do so at their own risk. The survey reflects a new reality in which consumers increasingly expect their favorite brands to assure more than quality and safety. They now expect those brands to assure the supply chain is also transparent.

CFI's research helps the food system better understand what it takes to earn and maintain consumer trust. Increasing transparency and improving their engagement with consumers will help align food system practices with consumer values and expectations, while supporting consumers in making informed decisions. By doing more to transparently communicate about the production practices used to produce food today, food companies and their suppliers can build consumer trust.

Large companies and farms producing food today are susceptible to public sentiment that profit is being placed ahead of public interest. Tragic incidents such as the peanut scandal provide reinforcement. Additionally, most consumers have no direct link to agriculture and food production, unlike past generations.

As a result, food producers must commit to communicating the ethical foundation of their work. They can no longer assume that the public knows they care about the animals they raise or the products they produce. They must be willing to engage in a dialogue with consumers and to embrace and answer their questions in an honest, open manner. There is no longer any question that effectively demonstrating transparency will help food producers increase trust in their processes and products. Some farms and food companies have embraced this reality and pulled back the curtain. I encourage others to follow their lead. The journey may not be simple, but the reward - earning consumer trust - is priceless.

The CFI 2015 consumer trust research, "A Clear View of Transparency and How it Builds Trust," can be downloaded at www.foodintegrity.org.