Trust issues: consumers more apt to trust opinions of friends, family over scientists

Barb Glen reports from the farm & food care conference in Ottawa about public opinion and agricultural policy

OTTAWA — Amid concerns about pesticide, antibiotic and hormone residues in food, there’s one additive the public embraces: adjectives.

Organic, new season, free range, environmentally friendly, heritage — all these descriptors are used on food products to boost sales.

“I’d like meat with adjectives, please,” quipped David Hughes, professor emeritus in food marketing at Imperial College London.

“The margin is in the adjectives.”

A key adjective is “free,” as in antibiotic-free, hormone-free, GMO free, gluten free and so on, he added.

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This trend concerns many farmers and ranchers, who defend conventionally raised crops and livestock by pointing to science that shows it is safe.

However, a recent survey found that consumers, especially young people, are skeptical about food production and safety and are more likely to trust the opinions of their friends and family over scientific research.

Charlie Arnot, chief executive officer at the U.S.-based Center for Food Integrity, said the food industry tends to think the public will trust scientific research and knowledge about any given production practice.

It doesn’t and it won’t.

Speaking at the launch of the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity May 31, Arnot said the food industry’s reliance on science as a way to educate the public makes flawed assumptions.

“If people don’t trust us, (we think) the problem is we simply haven’t given them the right information,” he said.

“So let’s go do some more research. If they still don’t trust us, let’s go do some more research. And if they still don’t trust us, we’ll do some more research. And we repeat that cycle over and over again for decades, assuming that if we find the right decimal point, somehow it’s going to unlock a magic key and people will trust us.”

However, the centre’s research has shown that confidence is three to five times more important to building trust than is competence. Farmers, processors, food companies and other food industry players may be competent, with science to back them, but consumer trust depends more heavily on other attributes, he said.

“Can you authentically communicate a commitment of values like compassion, responsibility, respect, fairness and truth, the kinds of values that consumers expect from us?” he said.

“Absolutely do not abandon science. Please don’t ever interpret this as saying we don’t need science. We do. But it has to play a different role in our public communication.”

Arnot said science shows what can be done, but the public wants to know whether it should be done.

“The problem is ‘can’ and ‘should’ are not the same question. ‘Can’ is a question about competency. ‘Should’ is a question about values and ethics,” he said.

“We’re really good at answering the ‘can’ question. We’re not so good at answering the ‘should’ question. Very few people are debating whether or not we can. The debate is around whether or not we should.”

Arnot said the food industry has already lost control of the conversation about food production. Now it is a matter of engaging people.

“If people trust you, science doesn’t matter. And if people don’t trust you, science doesn’t matter. Science only matters after you cross that trust threshold.”

Crystal Mackay, chief executive officer of CCFI’s parent organization, Farm and Food Care Canada, acknowledged the problem.

She said farmers tend to talk peer to peer in a trusted situation, such as to neighbours or veterinarians or tractor mechanics. Dealing with consumers who aren’t necessarily knowledgeable about farming requires a different approach.

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