Woman checking food label
Consumers tend to hold food companies responsible for ensuring safe food even though they have little trust in the companies.

GLADSTONE, MO. — Consumers tend to hold food companies responsible for ensuring safe food even though they have little trust in the companies, according to a Jan. 23 webinar from the Center for Food Integrity.

Companies need such trust to keep a “social license” and avoid further federal regulation. Speaking about company values, and not just science, could influence two vital consumer groups: “philosophers” and “followers,” according to the Center for Food Integrity, a not-for-profit organization whose members and project partners are involved in the food system.

A Center for Food Integrity survey asked consumers whom they trusted to ensure safe food. Food companies came in 11th out of 11 groups. Family ranked first, and family doctor was second. Yet when consumers were asked whom they held responsible for ensuring safe food, food companies ranked second, trailing only federal regulatory agencies.

CFI food trust chart

The survey also asked consumers to rate each of the 11 groups on how much they trusted the groups to ensure safe food. Twenty-four per cent gave food companies/manufacturers a rating between 8 to 10, which meant a good deal of trust, while another 15% gave a rating between 0-3, which meant little trust. The majority, 61%, gave a rating between 4-7, which meant they were not quite sure whether to trust food companies/ manufacturers.

Charlie Arnot, Center for Food Integrity
Charlie Arnot, c.e.o. of the Center for Food Integrity

“So the cause is not lost, but there is a reason for concern and a reason to begin thinking about what actions should be taken,” said Charlie Arnot, chief executive officer of the Gladstone-based Center for Food Integrity.

The Center for Food Integrity defined social license as the privilege of operating with minimal formal restrictions based on maintaining public trust. Losing a social license could lead to negative outcomes such as government regulation, lost sales and a reduced stock price.

Speaking about company values may gain trust. A Center for Food Integrity survey of 6,000 consumers found that shared values was about three to five times more important than demonstrating technical competency when gaining consumers’ trust.

Sources for food-related issues

“Now, does that mean we abandon our facts and science?” Mr. Arnot said. “Of course not. We absolutely cannot. We have to have that foundation of facts in order to build a solid case that we want to make, but that case has to be started by communicating our values. We have to lead with values first and then introduce science.”

Food companies should find a spokesperson/source who is knowledgeable and understandable, who clearly tells people what they should do given their life’s situation, who shows how the source has similar responsibilities (family, community, environment) and who makes sure the guidance “just feels like the right thing to do” ethically and morally, Mr. Arnot said.

The Center for Food Integrity divided consumers into five groups based on 4,100 user profiles of Americans between the ages of 18 and 64. Channels analyzed included Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, forums, reddit, blogs, Pinterest and instagram.

Food trust chart

Two groups might be the most reachable. Philosophers make up 9% of the population. They view scientific facts through an ethical lens and then decide what is morally right. They also might influence the followers, who make up 39% of the population.

“For the follower, food news is symbolic of confusion,” Mr. Arnot said.  “It causes them a lot of stress and anxiety. It threatens their sense of being and their sense of self. They are afraid they are going to make a mistake for them or their families, and that is the last thing they want to have happen, and they’re confused by the amount, and oftentimes, contradictory nature of food news.”

The other three groups were the scientific, the wishful thinker and the existentialist.

People in the scientific group like the complexity of issues, but because they give complex answers they have trouble communicating their beliefs to others. The wishful thinkers seek information that confirms their dreams and hopes. The existentialists fight on ideological battlefields. They are likely to get into social media arguments with existentialists who have opposite views.

Food trust chart

Consumers have trouble trusting not only food companies. While federal regulatory agencies were ranked No. 1 out of 11 groups to ensure safe food, they came in No. 8 as the most trusted.

When consumers were asked whether they trusted certain celebrities, 22% said they had a high level of trust, or between a ranking of 8-10, for Dr. Oz (Mehmet Oz, M.D.). Another 43% ranked him between 4-7, and 36% ranked him between 0-3.

When asked how much they trusted Vani Hari, also known as the “Food Babe,” 9% ranked her between 8-10, 18% ranked her between 4-7, and 16% ranked her between 0-3. A majority, 57%, said they did not know who she was.

“Celebrity does not equal credibility,” Mr. Arnot said.