A recently released survey by The Center for Food Integrity shows an alarming number of U.S. consumers are oddly unaware of the role farmers play in providing food to the world. The findings may bolster those claiming agriculture must do a better job of getting its positive message to the masses.

But in some instances the chasm between fact and public perception is so large one hopes those surveyed aren't indicative of the general population. The chickens may be coming home to roost in the current “gut-versus-science” rhetorical environment.

Titled “Consumer Trust and the Food System,” the Web-based survey was conducted last August and September among 2,008 U.S. adults (3.6 percent vegetarians) who are the primary buyer of food in the home and shop at least weekly. According to the authors, the survey provides a 95 percent confidence level with a sampling error of plus-or-minus 2.2 percent.

“All of us recognize the way food is produced today is dramatically different from the way it (once was),” said Charlie Arnot, CEO of The Center for Food Integrity (largely supported by agricultural advocacy groups and several food companies - see http://www.foodintegrity.org/current-supporters.php) in early February. “Times truly have changed.”

If the majority of those surveyed are on the level, they don't believe many of the changes have been for the better.

The 2007 research objectives were to gauge consumers' levels of concern regarding the following five issues: food safety, nutrition, environmental protection, the humane treatment of farm animals, and treatment of workers in the food system.

Within each of the five issues, respondents were asked to assign 100 points of responsibility. “For example, if you had farmers and producers, grocery stores, advocacy groups and restaurants as groups that were responsible and you thought each was equally responsible for food safety, they'd each get 25 points.”

Further, with some questions the level of competence, confidence and trust were judged on a scale of zero to 10.

Key takeaways

Among the remarkable things in the findings: consumers believe it's more important for groups in the food system (processors, producers, retailers) to do the “right thing” from an ethical perspective than to demonstrate their level of technical skills and abilities.

“This is a bit of a change for us in agriculture because we tend to want to focus on science. But the research results say that it's confidence (ethics and value similarity) more than competence (technical capacity, skills and ability and science) that drives trust. Frequently, that's by a factor of five. So it really is the ethical perspective and the commitment to do the right thing that drives consumer trust.

“That tends not to be where we've focused agriculture communications historically.”

The survey also found consumers' own opinion, as well as those of family and friends, is much more influential than any other group in the food system.

The top concerns of those surveyed, in descending order:

  • Food safety
  • Nutrition
  • Environment
  • Humane farm animal treatment
  • Worker care

Yes, you read that correctly. Those surveyed are more concerned with the treatment of farm animals than their fellow man.

When it comes to food safety, consumers hold farmers (20.4 points out of 100), food companies and processors (20.2 points) most responsible.

“I found it fascinating that people gave that much responsibility to farmers and producers for food safety,” said Arnot. “Having been involved in the food system for 20-plus years, I know when food leaves the farm dramatic things happen that impacts whether that food is safe. But from the consumer perspective, the farmer gets the most responsibility.”

On the flipside, “in terms of trust, they rely on themselves — or those who prepare food at home — and farmers. So they have a relatively high level of trust in farmers related to food safety.”

Humane treatment

On the issue of consumer trust in environmental protection, “They hold people like themselves most responsible for environmental protection related to the food system (18.5 points), federal regulatory agencies (17.1) and farmers (16.1).

As for consumer trust in the humane treatment of farm animals, “This one is interesting. In terms of responsibility, the groups they hold most responsible are farmers/producers (28.9 points) and advocacy groups (24.7).”

In a handful of questions on animal care, the group consumers trust most on the issue is “people like themselves.”

“Frequently, when I give this presentation in a room with producers, they're perplexed. They recognize the consumers that answered this don't have any experience or knowledge when it comes to the treatment of farm animals. Yet, they trust themselves when it comes to the treatment of those animals.”

Arnot hasn't a clue why that's the case. “Maybe it's, ‘If I know how to take care of my dog and cat, I can probably trust myself to take care of farm animals as well.’”

Even more strange, consumers believe people “like themselves” are most competent to answer questions about farm animals (57 percent).

“That's relatively high considering the lack of knowledge, skills and ability when it comes to the treatment of farm animals. Yet, they gave themselves high ratings.”

When asked whose recommendation they'd be willing to comply with when it comes to treatment of farm animals, there was an up-tick in farmers/producers. That means farmers leapfrogged advocacy groups but, again, both lagged behind “themselves.”

However, in a marked turnaround, despite having the highest regard for themselves in other “humane animal treatment” questions, consumers hold themselves the least responsible for the humane treatment of farm animals. They hold farmers the most responsible.

Information

Questions about reliability of food system sources of information were also hardly comforting.

Not surprisingly, consumers hold themselves, family and friends — followed by healthcare providers and university scientists — as most reliable sources of food information. Farmers came next.

“Perhaps the most disturbing finding was the group that ranked lowest (behind, among others, grocery stores, K-12 schools, newspapers and Web sites) as reliable sources of information about the food system were food companies and processors. That doesn't speak well to the level of trust and confidence people have from information coming from food companies and processors.”

Quick hits

All questions in this section asked respondents to ‘strongly disagree’ or ‘strongly agree’ on a scale of 1-10.

  • I trust food produced in the U.S. more than I trust food produced outside the U.S.

    Fifty-four percent strongly agreed with that statement and 9 percent strongly disagreed. “We will see some statements and levels of attitude agreement that would indicate a growing concern about food safety issues.”

  • U.S. food is among the most abundant in the world today.

    Forty-nine percent strongly agreed with that statement and 8 percent strongly disagreed. “I can't imagine being anywhere else in the world with a more abundant food supply.”

  • Food grown organically is more healthful than conventionally grown food.

    “Thirty-five percent strongly agreed, even though there are no health claims related to organic production.”

  • U.S. food is among the safest in the world today.

    Thirty-three percent strongly agreed with 16 percent strongly disagreeing. “I don't know where else they'll go to find safer food but clearly with only 33 percent agreeing, that isn't a great level of support for U.S. food safety.”

  • U.S. food is amongst the most affordable in the world today.

    Only 26 percent strongly agreed and 19 percent strongly disagreed.

  • I am confident in the safety of food I eat.

    Only 26 percent strongly agreed and 20 percent strongly disagreed.

    “Recognize we had a number of food safety incidents over the summer and I'm sure those were top of mind. I'd be surprised if (those concerns) have subsided. We'll find out when the research is repeated in 2008.”

  • I trust that what is on a product's label is what's actually in the product.

    Twenty-seven percent of those surveyed strongly agreed, with 24 percent strongly disagreeing.

  • Farm animals raised for food should be treated the same way household pet owners treat their pets.

    Amazingly, 30 percent strongly agreed with that and 26 percent strongly disagreed.

  • There is more nutritious food available today then there was when I was growing up.

    Twenty-eight percent strongly agree with 26 percent strongly disagreeing. “So, even though we have (much) more food today than before, there's no consensus the food is more nutritious today.”

  • I am as confident in the safety of the food I eat as I was a year ago.

    Twenty-eight percent strongly disagreed with that and 25 percent strongly agreed.

  • U.S. meat is derived from humanely treated animals.

    Twenty-seven percent strongly disagreed with that statement. Only 18 percent strongly agree.

    “That's particularly troubling when you think about all the work being done on the food system … There's an opportunity for significant improvement in this area.”

  • I have access to all the information I want about where my food comes from, how it was produced and its safety.

Thirty-seven percent strongly disagreed with the statement. “That's very confusing when you consider all the information out there on the food system.”