Build Consumer Trust Agriculture must protect its freedom to operate - or surrender

April 5, 2009 07:00 PM

Many consumers still envision farming as a farmer pulling a plow in a pastoral setting. "That's like comparing a new car with the '57 Chevy,” says Charlie Arnot of the Center for Food Integrity.

Former journalist Charlie Arnot can walk you through a litany of principles, values and ethics that compel consumers to buy as they do.

Arnot's not the only one, however, who understands those forces. Activists are capitalizing on their knowledge of consumer trends and values to draw support for their causes. And they're counting on you to surrender, adds Arnot, CEO of the Center for Food Integrity, a not-for-profit corporation established in 2007 to build consumer trust and confidence in the U.S. food system.

It's time to fight back, he says.

"We have to give customers, policymakers, community leaders and consumers permission to believe that contemporary livestock production is consistent with their values and expectations,” says Arnot, who spent 10 years as a vice president for Premium Standard Farms, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods. "Failure will result in revocation of our social license and freedom to operate.”

Arnot defines social license as the privilege of operating with minimal formalized restrictions such as legislation and regulation. It's based on maintaining public trust by doing what's right.

"We have to build and communicate an ethical foundation for our activity and engage in value-based communication if we want to build the trust that protects our freedom,” Arnot says.

That means creating a dialogue among stakeholders at every step of the food system—farmers, food companies, processors, retailers, restaurants, consumers, and governmental and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

It also means change. "We don't produce food or sell it the way we used to,” Arnot says. "Too often, it's the image of the good ol' days that's reinforced rather than how we farm today. We no longer have an agrarian model; we have an industrial model.”

Although U.S. agriculture has embraced technology, resulting in safer, more productive and more environmentally sound food systems, that progress hasn't clicked with consumers yet. On the way to the industrial model, Arnot says, the food system didn't establish consumer trust.

"The public senses change in the way food is produced, but it doesn't understand it,” he says. "That lack of understanding creates opportunity for activists and detractors.”

Among those are various NGOs that have discovered global brands can be agents of social change, doing what government cannot. Groups such as the Humane Society of the United States and the Animal Legal Defense Fund are well-funded and share a growing interest in animal law. "They understand that the new reality is that global brands are more efficient than regulation and legislation,” Arnot says.

Wal-Mart and McDonald's have been big NGO targets. In response, these globally branded retail giants are establishing policies that now impact agricultural production practices. "The result is an entirely new environment where we have to consider new strategies and new ways of engaging to protect our freedom to operate,” Arnot says.

"We need to understand the new market environment and appreciate what drives the success of NGOs, who frequently question what we do, and the pressure they can exert on branded food companies,” he adds.

Agriculture can fight back by building a new model for trust. Producers and food companies must build consumer trust in food safety, in the ability to protect the environment and in the humane treatment of farm animals.

Agricultural interests should also remember that—right or wrong—the consumer's confidence in a company or product always wins over scientific facts, Arnot adds.

Farming practices that are ethically grounded, scientifically verified and economically viable—with all these factors operating in balance—are key to a sustainable food system.

Professional attributes that have shown they can protect the freedom to operate, Arnot says, include:
  • Ethical principles
  • Code of conduct
  • Accountability to stakeholders
  • Best practices
  • Certification
  • Continuing education

Adopting new solutions is essential, Arnot says, quoting Charles Darwin: "It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”


A 2008 consumer trust survey of more than 2,000 respondents, spearheaded by the Center for Food Integrity, revealed these food safety key insights:
  • Consumers feel that farmers/producers and food companies and processors are most responsible for the safety of their food.
  • Consumers trust themselves and those that prepare food in their homes more than any other audience.
  • Consumers have a high amount of trust in farmers/producers when it comes to food safety.
  • Shared values are five times more important than technical know-how when building consumer trust.
  • Consumer trust in food safety is decreasing.

Respondents also indicated they were "very concerned” not only about rising food costs but also about increasing energy costs and the state of the U.S. economy. The survey showed 60% of the respondents were more concerned about food prices in mid-2008 than they were a year before.

"The food system needs to demonstrate that we share the values of today's consumer,” says Center for Food Integrity CEO Charlie Arnot. "Consumers want to know that even though our systems have changed, those in the food system are committed to doing what's right. By the same token, if practices are not based on sound science, there is no way to evaluate and validate the claims of sustainability, and if they are not profitable, they cannot be commercially sustained.”

Bonus content:

Center for Food Integrity- 2009 Summit

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