Getting ready to deal with consumers’ expectations of the food system

New research shows the public expects farmers, food companies, 
grocery chains, and restaurants to work as partners

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Siddhartha Gautama, the Indian fellow who we in the western world refer to as Buddha, once said: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

And in this he was right, for when we are ready to learn or seek some form of knowledge, someone comes into our life to enlighten us.

Enlightenment has changed and now often comes via the Internet — the one thing most of humanity has access to with their cellphone. Just as I looked up Siddhartha for this column only to discover he was the Buddha, so is the reach of most folks when it comes to the process of discovery.

It interests me how societies evolve and change. It used to be that we lived in isolation on remote farms. Now the public has pulled back the covers to see what we are doing, and how we are treating our animals and our staff. We used to talk on the phone extensively and now my landline could for all intents and purposes be disconnected. And today there is as much excitement in cities about farming as there is in agriculture because folks have become enlightened about food.

It is a good thing that information is readily available and that we, as students, are so eager to learn because it is coming through loud and clear from consumers that those in agriculture are in partnership with food companies, grocery stores, and restaurants when it comes to all things food.

Read on fellow student.

The Centre for Food Integrity (USA) has found consumers hold food companies and farmers largely responsible for transparency, which they equate to trust. The study found that when it comes to animal well-being, consumers rate food companies 49 per cent responsible, and farmers 30 per cent responsible. You could translate that into consumers giving food companies the rein to dictate animal welfare on farm — which, quite frankly, has been the interpretation by some groups.

According to our hungry clients, food companies and farmers share the responsibility for the environment at 38 per cent and 37 per cent. Although farmers cannot control or influence the environmental footprint of a huge food company, we remain cast in the same arena and will share any disruption in the public trust.

This is most interesting. In addition to animal welfare being on the radar of our clients, there is a deep interest in labour and human rights. That is a good thing because food companies had been part of the exploitation of labour for thousands of years. There have been slaves or servants and agricultural masters — usually the guys who owned the storage bins or had a connection with the royal family.

The sky is no longer the limit when it comes to human rights because they are now manned and technology allows anyone to zoom in on a palm tree plantation or blueberry field. Consumers have had their say in this study and made a point that food companies hold 40 per cent of the responsibility and farmers are 32 per cent of the responsibility to ensure appropriate labour standards and human rights in food production.

Food safety is more broadly shared by all four parties with food companies at 37 per cent, farmers at 28 per cent, and grocery chains and restaurants at 17 per cent each. This is no surprise but again it shows the grave responsibility of food companies — packers, processors and manufacturers — in the eye of the public.

Producers may not think they are responsible for the health of an individual consumer — but then again this is a moment for enlightenment.

Food companies are seen as 41 per cent responsible for the impact of food on health and farmers are seen as 28 per cent responsible to deliver food that has a positive impact on health. You and I may know that beef is good for you and cannot stop someone eating three burgers a day and having coronary trouble. But that is not the point. The point is we are entrusted to produce food that contributes to good health. (I will wisely refrain from making a comment about corn, high-fructose syrup, and other such items here.)

And finally the whole aspect of business ethics is addressed with consumers feeling food companies are 42 per cent responsible and farmers are accountable at 27 per cent, with the balance between grocery chains and restaurants. Consumers do like farmers — but they do not let them off the hook in terms of ethical issues.

The idea is that trust is built on the pillar of transparency — which in our consumers’ eyes includes the six areas cited above (ranging from animal welfare to human rights). This all translates into something we call social licence. It’s going to be interesting to see how much food companies put on our shoulders in order to satisfy consumer expectations, and we may have a hard time adjusting to the role of student if consumers press for more transparency.

The teacher will soon appear and we will soon know as the new Canadian Centre for Food Integrity will launch in May in Ottawa with results of its research into Canadian public trust in food and farming.

Stay tuned.

About the author

AF Columnist

Brenda Schoepp

Brenda Schoepp works as an international mentor and motivational speaker. She can be contacted through her website at www.brendaschoepp.com. All rights reserved.

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