Food trust must be earned

This year’s consumer trust survey from the Center for Food Integrity evaluated the attitudes and opinions of consumers towards the use of antibiotics in food production, concerns about life and current events, identifying issues with high impact and high concern, what leads to social outrage and the impact of perceptions of good actors and bad actors.

Half of CFI’s 2013 consumer trust survey respondents believe antibiotics are less effective in humans because they have been over-prescribed by physicians, and among those highly concerned, nearly half of them say it has impacted their decision to seek a prescription. One-third believes antibiotics are less effective in humans because of their use in livestock.

When it came to trepidation about the use of antibiotics in dairy, meat and egg production, high concerns were at a similar level for all three (just over half) with about one out of three respondents believing antibiotics are less effective because of their use in cows, hogs and layers.

Alarm over the use of antibiotics was highest in meat production, as just under half indicated that they had decreased personal consumption while four out of 10 had decreased their family’s consumption.

Decreases in dairy and egg consumption were nearly the same when it came to reductions in personal consumption (37% and 34%) and family consumption (29% and 28%) as a result of apprehension over the use of antibiotics in food producing animals.

USDA, FDA and the Center for Disease Control tied as the top expert sources for the use of antibiotics. University experts came in fourth, trailed by websites specific to antibiotic use in food production by a single percentage point.

CFI’s annual consumer research survey also tracks attitudes toward the U. S. food supply over a five-year period. CFI uses a 0 to 10 scale where “0” meant that consumers strongly disagreed and “10” meant they strongly agreed with the statement. Zero to 3 ratings indicate a relatively low level of agreement, 4 to 7 ratings a moderate level of agreement, and 8 to 10 ratings a relatively strong level of agreement.

Areas of worry scoring a moderate level of agreement were concerns about food prices being greater now than they were a year ago, the U. S. food supply being amongst the most affordable in the world today, and the concern about the affordability of healthy food.

During the past five years, consumer confidence in the safety of food that they eat has ranged from 5.64 to 6.42, with this year’s mean score (6.28) being slightly higher than last year’s (5.99).

However, confidence in the safety of food as compared to a year ago has always been lower, with a six-year mean ranging from a low of 5.17 in 2007 to a high of 6.28.  This year’s mean was 6.08, a slight increase from last year’s 5.92.

For some reason, though, survey respondents consistently grade the statement “today’s food supply is safer than it was when I was growing up” considerably lower. Its scores over the past few years have ranged from a high of 5.47 (2010) to a low of 4.40 (2008). This year’s mean (5.19) is only a minute increase from last year’s (5.08).

“Confidence that government food safety agencies are doing a good job ensuring the safety of the food we eat” has been on two mountain-climbing expeditions from a statistical standpoint, starting out at 4.68 in 2008 and peaking at 6.03 two years later. From there, it dropped to 5.40 last year and started pack up the slope with a mean score of 5.66 this year.

One of the highest mean scores from a historical standpoint is agreement with the statement that “I trust food produced in the U. S. more than I trust food produced outside of the U.S.” With the exception of only two years (2010 and 2012), the mean score for agreement with this statement has always been above 7, with this year’s mean score being the highest ever at 7.28. And during the two years referenced, it was barely under 7 (6.94 in 2010 and 6.90 last year).

As you may recall in my previous column, I shared with you that according to U. S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance (USFRA), consumers — especially those between the ages of 21 and 29 — desire more information about food. This year’s CFI survey corroborates that conclusion, as the statement “I have access to all of the information I want about where my food comes from, how its produced and its safety” received a mean score of 5.67. The good news is that the mean score has increased from all-time low of 4.60 when CFI began during its annual survey six years ago.

After analyzing CFI’s research data, the biggest challenge may be with farm animals. Earning a mean score of 7.28 this year was the statement, “If farm animals are treated decently and humanely, I have no problem consuming meat, milk and eggs.” Unfortunately, the statement “U.S. meat is derived from humanely treated farm animals” received a mean score 5.58 for 2013.

The two statements have shared a similar historical six-year comparison, with the farm animals treatment statement being the highest ever in 2007 (7.68) while that same year the statement about meat being derived from humanely treated farm animals was 5.02. The year “meat being derived” statement scored the highest was in 2010 with a mean score of 5.89. That same year, the statement about farm animal treatment came in at 7.29.

The possible solution to this discrepancy? More transparency. It’s what consumers demand, and it’s the only way to build trust, which cannot be bought; it can only be earned.

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