Thought-provoking speakers, along with information on how to overcome growing consumer skepticism about today’s food, dominated this year’s Food Integrity Summit, said Charlie Arnot, CEO of the Center for Food Integrity.
The conference, which was co-hosted by the CFI, National Restaurant Association and the International Food Information Council took place earlier this month in Rosemont, Ill., and focused on the roles that technology and innovation play in food and how to assure the public that food is safe, Arnot said.
“There is growing skepticism among consumers about ‘big food,’” he said. “Consumers are telling us that ‘factory farms’ and ‘corporations’ producing our food and ‘big chains’ serving it just can’t be trusted. They believe that mass production creates more opportunity for error, that industrialized food production is inherently impersonal, and that big companies will put profits ahead of public interest.”
Arnot said that according to recent CFI research, consumers have said that being more transparent would help overcome some of that skepticism. He further told conference attendees that the research identified several components necessary for building transparency:
Motivation: Acting in a manner that is ethical and consistent with stakeholder interests
Disclosure: Sharing publicly all information, both positive and negative
Stakeholder participation: Engaging those interested in your activities or impact
Relevance: Sharing information stakeholders deem relevant
Clarity: Sharing information that is easily understood and easily obtained
Credibility: Sharing positive and negative information that supports informed stakeholder decision making and have a history of operating with integrity
Accuracy: Share information that is truthful, objective, reliable and complete
“We tested 33 attributes of the seven elements,” he said, “and the results show our definition of trust building transparency rings true with the public. More than half of the respondents gave ratings of 8 to 10 points on a 10-point scale for all 33 attributes. The responses provide clear direction on exactly what we can do to overcome their bias and skepticism and earn their trust.”
Arnot told attendees that in addition to the trust-building research, CFI also has identified what creates social outrage among consumers where food safety is concerned and how companies can instill peace of mind.
“When consumers have a high level of concern about an issue and believe there is a likelihood the issue will impact the consumer or his or her family, we have the perfect environment for triggering social outrage,” he said. “Out of 16 issues we tested, including obesity, processed food and sugary drinks, only three – affordability of food, affordability of healthful food, and food safety – had high concern and high perceived impact.”
But, he added, based on analysis of past food system crises, 10 factors triggering social outrage were:
Lack of transparency
Putting private interest ahead of public interest
Insensitivity to public interest
Callous disregard for public interest, or malicious indifference
Historical record of poor performance
Failure or unwillingness to accept responsibility
Impact on vulnerable populations or systems, i.e. people, animals and environment
Negligence in following industry best practices
“When a food company or restaurant is perceived to engage in any of the behaviors that trigger social outrage, the impact can be dramatic,” he said. “Our research shows that when it comes to food safety, the most important factor in building peace of mind is a willingness to accept responsibility, and the most important factors in building consumer trust are a historical record of good performance, demonstrating transparency, being sensitive to public interest and being candid and not misleading.”
Arnot also said that this year’s speakers represented a cross-section of the food industry and included such experts as Linda W. Eatherton of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, manufacturers Susan Beebe of Tyson Foods and Tara Clark of ConAgra Foods, registered dietitian and author Carolyn O’Neil, the National Restaurant Association’s Sue Hensley and author and former White House chef Walter Scheib.
“This year’s attendees said they really enjoyed the combination of interesting speakers, insightful research and interesting anecdotes from speakers like former White House chef Walther Scheib,” he noted, saying the summit accomplished its goal of providing new information and models on how to build better consumer trust across the food system.
“This year’s conference is another milestone in our collective effort to build consumer trust in today’s food system,” he said. “Going forward, we’ll take the insights from our speakers and the research and create new models for those.”