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Consumers’ Love-Hate Relationship with Government Agencies

Ask any marriage counselor: a relationship without trust isn’t much of a relationship at all. According to the latest research from The Center for Food Integrity (CFI), consumers and federal government food agencies are headed for the therapist’s couch.

While federal regulatory agencies like USDA, FDA and EPA are held responsible for ensuring the health and safety of food, they’re not trusted to get the job done, CFI survey results show.

Trust vs. Responsibility

Specifically, federal regulatory agencies are held most responsible for ensuring safe food. However, when it comes to trust, they rank eighth on a list of 11 choices. (Rankings for responsibility and trust “to ensure healthy food” were similar.)

If you’re held responsible and trusted, like farmers who rank third on both counts, you’re seen as a credible source. However, if you’re held responsible but not trusted, that’s a problem.

The potential fallout is serious and we’re already witnessing consequences in the food system as public skepticism about food production and processing grows. The mistrust is evident in our CFI Street Talk series when we asked, “Do you trust the federal government agencies charged with keeping our food safe?” Among the responses:

“It’s a mixed bag. Some of them are trying to do the right thing and some are just trying to keep their jobs.”
“They’re politically driven to meet the needs of large corporations.”
“I don’t think anyone is out there for the best interest of the consumer.”

A lack of trust can result in increased pressure for additional oversight and regulations, rejection of products or information, and consumers seeking alternate, and perhaps unreliable, information sources.

Values Void

So, why the disconnect? The reasons vary, but one source of skepticism is a lack of communication in a way that truly resonates.

Just look at government websites – which are the only point of connection for many consumers. Some sites are directed solely to regulated entities with no attempt to engage the broader public; some convey volumes of scientific information using jargon that’s difficult for anyone without a PhD to understand; and some require visitors to jump through multiple hoops just to submit a question.

There is a common misperception in government that communications must be sterile – void of values – to maintain objectivity. In reality, the two are not mutually exclusive and this misperception is partly to blame for the disconnect with consumers.

So, what will it take to bring consumers and government agencies closer?

Commit to a New Approach

Engaging with the public in a relatable manner about topics that matter most to them; conveying confidence in the system of oversight that ensures we have the safest food supply in the world; welcoming questions and providing timely responses; and not being afraid to acknowledge underlying values related to food safety, animal care and environmental stewardship.

Certainly, the dedicated individuals who work for agencies like USDA, FDA and EPA are committed to these values and more – that’s what drives them. But often values aren’t communicated.

Our research shows that to earn trust, the following steps go a long way:

  1. Evaluate your communication on all fronts – your website, social media outreach and in-person communication. Ensure you’re engaging in a way that incorporates the “why” behind any given regulation, research or action (the greater good that will result for people, animals or the planet) and conveys confidence in the U.S. system of oversight.
  2. Provide top-down training to ensure that everyone in your agency understands the importance of effective public engagement.
  3. Update the language on your website to provide content for the average consumer that’s easy to find, relatable, easy to understand and engaging.
  4. Use quality photos and videos on web and social platforms that demonstrate what you do and how it makes an important impact.
  5. Make sure consumers have a way to engage with experts who will respond to questions in a timely manner. Consumers want to be heard and acknowledged.

Like any relationship, building trust with consumers requires a renewed, long-term commitment. Demonstrating a commitment to meeting their expectations when it comes to safe food, healthy plants and animals, and a healthy planet is central to success. Are you up for the challenge? Ready to blaze a new trail?

We’d be happy to put our research and trust-earning values and transparency training to work for you. This is too important to get wrong. Connect with us at learnmore@foodintegrity.org.

Terri Moore
The Center for Food Integrity