Trust Drops in Food Industry, but Still Outranks Most

(From Spring 2011 edition of Center for Food Safety Newsletter)


Jason McGrath


Fifty-four percent of Americans questioned for a survey of confidence in various institutions said they trust the food and beverage industry, a decline of 10 points from a year ago. The survey, the Edelman Trust Barometer, annually seeks the opinions of college-educated people in 23 countries whose income is in their age group’s top 25 percent.
“Trust really has become a required line of business,” said Jason McGrath, vice president of StrategyOne, the Washington-based research firm for the public relations firm Edelman. McGrath discussed the survey’s findings in April during a seminar at the UA Center for Food Safety.
On a global basis, the trust level for the food and beverage industry was 66 percent, topped only by the technology, automotive and telecommunications industries among the 16 industries listed. The United States trust level of 54 percent was greater than that of four countries – China, Russia, Sweden and Germany – but exceeded by 18 countries. The highest levels of confidence were in Mexico, Brazil and Indonesia, which each registered 89 percent.
The reason for the disparity among the nations – Germany’s low level of trust was 37 percent – was probably due to food safety issues, McGrath said. “There have been some significant food safety concerns in some countries over the past few years, Germany being one that’s had some significant issues in the past few months.” (In December, dioxin was discovered in eggs Germany.)
In the United States, 51 percent of respondents said the food that American buy has become safer in the past 10 years and 57 percent said unhealthy foods should be more heavily regulated to discourage their consumption. Sixty-six percent said the foods they eat make a statement about their values ad 67 percent said they avoid processed foods as often as possible.
“As we look at leading healthier lifestyles and how food fits into that, there is a desire for increased regulation on government’s part to insure that consumers are leading healthier lifestyles,” McGrath said.

Twenty-one percent said they buy mostly organic foods, which McGrath said is known not to be true; the actual number is about 4 percent.
“In this data, what we’re seeing is a general sense with American grocery shoppers that there’s a feeling that they need to answer in a certain way,” McGrath said. “There’s an expectation that society has of them that organics are good, so I want to purchase mostly organic foods, so I want to tell this interviewer on the phone with me that, of course, I buy mostly organic foods.”

While the survey number is exaggerated, it does show that purchasing trends for organic foods will increase. The tendency to identify as a consumer of organic foods also shows the need for the industry to educate consumers about natural foods, organics and sustainable food production.
Asked their levels of trust to do the right thing on food-related issues, consumers gave farmers the biggest vote of confidence at 72 percent. That put farmers ahead of government agencies, academics, grocery stores, other consumers, restaurants, food companies, media and Congress.
According to some focus group feedback, McGrath said, “farmers evoke an image of a return to the land; natural, wholesome food production. We’re starting to see companies use farmers in advertising.”
Within government, the two food regulatory agencies – the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration – are close behind farmers with trust levels of 61 and 59 percent, respectively. Congress had the lowest level of trust of all institutions listed at 18 percent.
 Trust in an institution on food safety issues comes from “partnerships, consistency and collaboration,” McGrath said. Once trust is lost, it is difficult to restore. Foodborne illness outbreaks in particular can erode trust in companies. Consumers tend to presume food safety as a given for a product, McGrath said.

“Food safety becomes an issue when there’s a crisis. That’s when the communication around food safety is absolutely critical to insure that the mechanisms are in place to demonstrate food safety procedures, to be able to communicate about those procedures and why a food safety presence may actually have occurred.”