Why Trust In Our Food System Matters
Trust is very personal, and we all define it a little bit differently. Most often, we associate trust with our closest friends and family. Yet, those are not the only people to give our trust. We trust the local bakery to have our favourite bread, we trust the supermarket to always have stocked shelves and we trust that our food system can provide safe and nutritious food for us. Or do we?
The Oxford dictionary defines trust as “the belief that somebody/something is good, sincere, honest, etc. and will not try to harm or trick you”.1
Why is trust so important for our food system?
From a company or brand perspective, trust may be important as it will lead to more customers and an increased sale of products. Yet, from a system perspective, there is much more at play than just sales. Consumers not only decide what to buy but also from whom and where they will purchase a product. Trust also plays an important role when it comes to introducing new innovations to the market as well as tackling health and environmental challenges.
It is only when we trust our food system and the actors within it, that we can make choices leading us to a more sustainable food system. For example, if we don’t trust that sustainability labels are actually backed by sustainable practices, we might not buy those products nor feel generally empowered and capable of contributing to a more sustainable world. Consumer demand can drive production, so in theory, the more that consumers purchase sustainably backed products, the more products will be produced sustainably.
Despite us all ‘voting with our dollar’ when deciding what product to buy, not enough of us feel that our purchasing decisions carry any significant weight. We might even feel that none of the options available to us are worth our vote because we lack trust in our food system. Therefore, we often leave any considerations that do not directly affect us out of our decision-making, for example food safety affects us directly whereas sustainability doesn’t necessarily.
What influences trust in the food system?
The reason why trust can be undermined is easily summed up. Negative press. Ranging anywhere from food scandals to unveiling unfair working conditions of producers. For example, when horse meat was found mixed into the beef of frozen lasagne, a lot of us started losing trust in the producers and food safety authorities, because we thought: ‘shouldn’t there have been measures in place that ensure that these things don’t happen?’
Another detractor of trust comes from the fact that almost all of our food is produced ‘behind closed doors’ as far as consumers are concerned. Then, when unexpected practices come to light, we start questioning the entire system and all actors within it. It’s quite similar to how we lose trust in people in our personal lives, for example when they lie to us, or cheat or act in a way that we don’t agree with or expected and our trust in them has been breached.
A complicated connection to the origins of our food
Our food system consists of many actors that act along the supply chain to get the food from the farm to a product that we can buy in our local supermarkets. And as food chains are becoming longer, we consumers have to solely rely on the information we’re given by the actors along the chain as we cannot verify the integrity of the food supply chain ourselves.
The EIT Food Grand Challenge on Consumer Trust is working on increasing consumer trust, support for the food supply chain and for food companies. To find out the current “status quo” on how consumers really felt about their food systems, they interviewed consumers and conducted surveys across six countries. Over 2,200 consumers were asked questions related to their trust in actors across the food chain as well as their reputation. The results indicate that where we’re from plays a large part in who we trust and what we value within our food systems.
Every country perceives their food system a little differently and each prides themselves on different things. In Italy, for example, a big focus is put on local and national products, whereas Poland is most proud of their exports and their products enjoying a good reputation abroad.
Who do we trust the most?
Despite the different country-focuses, farmers were the most trusted actor along the food chain in every country. The second most trusted actors were the food retailers, followed by manufacturers, restaurants and catering and, lastly, food authorities.
Since the coronavirus pandemic, people said that they trust farmers and food retailers even more than before the pandemic. They possibly trust these more now, seeing that they were able to provide enough food, with rarely any shortages. Yet, the widespread panic buying showed that not all people trust their local food system equally - opting to stock up.
It seems that we most trust those that have been around the longest. Agriculture has been practiced for hundreds of years so we feel we know what farmers do, but with new developments we’re a bit more cautious and even suspicious. Our trust has to be earned. So how can consumer trust be improved, especially in a world that’s facing quite a few challenges in its food system?
What are some solutions to increase trust?
There are two terms constantly floating around when we talk about increasing trust: transparency and traceability. Becoming more transparent by opening doors to the public can help any actor along the food chain increase consumer trust. We tend to believe and trust more if we can verify statements for ourselves. Increasing transparency means that we don’t have to take everything we are told at face value but can actually see it with our own eyes. Isn’t the saying “actions speak louder than words”?
Also, with a world that has never been this connected, products come from all around the globe, making traceability much more important. Implementing more traceability practices would mean that we can trace where our food has come from and where it was at any stage during production. Traceability is not only linked to tracing a location of a product but also the places of origin and other information regarding its production, including fair payments of workers and food fraud.
Current practices in place to increase consumer trust by being more transparent, for example, include protected food origin labels, or programmes based on blockchain technology to make products and foods more traceable. Across various countries, different initiatives are running to share more information with consumers, ranging from initiatives that raise awareness on food waste across the food chain in Poland or that promote local food and share details of where the food is from in Spain.
Despite all of this, one of the most important things and also a very simple solution that actors across our food chain can take is seeking out a dialogue with consumers. Starting a dialogue can help food chain actors understand what consumers actually want and need and, on the other hand, can help consumers understand the processes and functioning of our food system much better.
In the name of starting dialogue, the project also collaborated with university students from different countries, to come up with possible initiatives that companies, retailers, service providers or authorities could take to increase trust. The ideas ranged from maps that can show how far our food has travelled and the promotion of local produce, new ways for restaurants to handle specific dietary requirements and food retailers and producers to be more transparent with ingredients, to ideas on how people can be made aware of the origins of their food.
There are many more solutions and ways in which we consumers can contribute. What is most important for you to trust our food chain?