Charlie Arnot

The changes in food production over the past 100 years are remarkable. Technology, consolidation, and integration have dramatically altered how our food system operates. We are now able to bring foods to consumers more efficiently, safely, and with greater affordability than ever before.

But as Americans have moved to urban centers, their generational and geographical distance from food production has increased. As a result, the majority of consumers are now disconnected from the processes that bring that food to their tables. This disconnect, coupled with our increased use of technology, has had a negative impact on consumer perception, leading to more questions about how food is produced and processed. From a growing number of consumers, questions focus on concerns about nutrition, food safety, animal welfare, and affordability.

Those questions create greater pressure for every sector of the food system, including farmers, manufacturers, branded food companies, grocery stores, and restaurants. Each is under ever-increasing pressure to demonstrate their commitment to responsible production. Groups opposed to how today’s food is produced are pursuing litigation, pressuring customers, and initiating legislation and increased regulation to change how the system operates.

When countered, the industry has traditionally responded by either attacking the attackers, or using science to justify our practices. We’ve consistently resorted to lobbing attacks, statistics, and industry jargon at consumers in an effort to convince them that current production methods are superior to those of the past.

Not only are these tactics ineffective, but they can make consumers even more suspicious of how food is produced.

At The Center for Food Integrity (CFI), we believe the heightened level of consumer interest and growing pressure presents a tremendous opportunity. For those willing to take a new approach to building consumer support for today’s food system, redefining the industry is paramount to building consumer trust. We need to demonstrate to the rational majority of consumers that even though the size and scale of the industry has grown and our use of technology has changed, our commitment to doing what’s right has never been stronger.

Every organization, large or small, operates with some level of social license. Social license is the privilege of operating with minimal government regulation based on maintaining public trust by doing what’s right. Once lost, either through a single event or a series of events that violate public trust, social license is replaced with social control—regulation, legislation, or litigation that mandate specific performance design to restore public confidence. Operating with a social license is flexible and low cost. In contrast, operating with a high degree of social control increases costs, reduces operational flexibility, and increases the burden of bureaucratic compliance.

At CFI, we’ve conducted research to determine the three primary elements that drive consumer trust in the food system. They are confidence, competence, and influential others.

Confidence is related to perceived shared values and ethics and a belief that an individual or group will do the right thing. Competence is a demonstration of skills, ability, and technical capacity. Influential others include family and friends as well as respected, credentialed individuals like doctors, scientists, and dieticians.

Since 2007, CFI has conducted national consumer surveys in the United States to determine the role that confidence, competence, and influential others play in creating and maintaining trust. The results have been consistent and conclusive. On every issue, confidence, or shared values, is three to five times more important than competence in determining who consumers will trust in the food system.

These results serve as a call to action for the food industry. No longer is it sufficient to rely solely on science or to attack our attackers as a means of protecting our self interests. Today’s consumer environment requires new ways of engaging the public and new methods of communicating if we want to build trust, earn and maintain social license, and protect our freedom to operate.

We need consumers to understand that while our systems have changed and our use of technology has increased, our commitment to doing what’s right has never been stronger. We must then be able to verify our claims with objective science, while operating profitably if we are to remain sustainable.

It is only by achieving and maintaining this balance between systems and practices that are first ethically grounded, and then supported through scientific verification, and finally are economically viable, that we will build consumer trust in the food system.


Charlie Arnot is CEO of The Center for Food Integrity, Kansas City, MO 64153 ([email protected]).