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The Battle Over Who’s Dirtier Hurts Everyone

The dueling “dirty dozen” lists recently released illustrate the dangerous food fight that’s eroding trust in the entire food system. One list points fingers at pesticides and omits important context about exposure levels while the other punches back by detailing organic food recalls.

It’s likely neither author stopped to think about the consequences when it comes to consumer skepticism.

Those within the food system scratch their heads in disbelief over the level of public mistrust pointed directly at them. Yet, the food system is notorious for family feuds. Whether it’s food labels or production practices, it’s no wonder consumers don’t know what to believe.

The right answer is that consumers not only appreciate choice, they demand it. There’s a market for niche products and plenty left for conventional – an ideal environment where there’s room for everyone at the table and plenty of opportunity for growth.

What if – instead of battling with one another – those within the food system joined hands and turned their focus intently on earning consumer trust?

Consumer engagement has certainly improved in the past few years, but there is so much more that could be done. We know from three years of intense research that transparency is a powerful tool to build trust. In fact, we know the specific steps consumers want farmers and food companies to take to become more transparent. Yet, much of the food system lacks transparency, instead watching as a few courageous leaders embrace it.

Research also leaves no doubt that consumer engagement is key to earning trust. Many companies believe they do it well, but are challenged when put to the test. A contact page that’s difficult to find and when found, requires consumers to fill out a form just to submit an inquiry, doesn’t invite engagement. Make it easy.

Videos are another popular tool to engage the public and give them a window into your world.

There are few more influential methods of engagement than experiential learning. When consumers and food influencers are provided an opportunity to see firsthand how something is grown, created or produced, the results are stunning – often creating a new team of ambassadors to help tell the positive story of ag and food production. Direct engagement requires careful planning, however, to ensure you’ve engaged rational skeptics, not radical critics.

At CFI, we are proud of our record of successful tours and events that bring the food system together with influencers and the public. We are finding new ways to facilitate effective engagement as part of our mission to help the food system earn trust.

Whether or not you are ready to increase trust-building engagement, I certainly hope you’ll avoid actions and statements that erode trust. If you are considering slinging a little mud of your own in the proverbial food fight, remember that each time you do, the victim is consumer confidence, and the target the entire food family.

Charlie Arnot
The Center for Food Integrity