Wrestling to reconcile reality in food production

While the application of science and innovation has made food safer, more affordable and more available than ever before, these same advancements now fuel a cultural tide of mistrusting “big food” and the science that comes with it. This mistrust was the topic of recent comments in Time magazine by writer Bryan Walsh (Reports Peg Lingering Problems with Meat Production in the U.S., October 25, 2013), regarding a new report by the Center for a Livable Future (CLF) on the state of industrial food animal production in the United States.

The report, intended to be a progress update on the Pew Commission’s 2008 Industrial Farm Animal Production study, sites concerns about “animal welfare, pollution from big CAFOs, and the growing economic concentration of the farming sector.” The report also underscores the lack of progress to date regarding federal legislation or regulations to improving the transparency and accessibility to sustainable food across the country.

When it comes to trust, we know that consumers are skeptical of large organizations, whether farms or food companies. Consumers increasingly believe that mass production creates more opportunity for error, that industrialized food production is inherently impersonal, and that big companies will put profits ahead of public interest. It is no wonder consumers are asking so many questions about food. Is organic healthier? Are processed foods bad for me? Why are we tampering with the genetics of what we eat? Why are we treating farm animals this way?

These are all legitimate questions worthy of public discussion. That discussion demands the food system embrace more transparency in how food is grown, processed and served. But are we willing to critically consider the answers if they conflict with the current cultural culinary ethos?

The Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply (CSES) is a multi-stakeholder coalition of academics, non-government organizations and companies working to better understand the impact of egg laying housing on food safety, the environment, worker health and safety, hen health and well-being and food affordability. The Coalition recently completed analysis of year-one data from a commercial scale study of indoor hen housing, comparing conventional egg laying cages, enriched cages (with nests and perches) and a cage-free aviary system.

The preliminary results still must be peer-reviewed, but they may run counter to popular belief.  The cage-free system had more than double the death rate and 10 times the particulate matter emissions, workers were exposed to higher levels of dust, endotoxins and ammonia, and the cost of cage-free eggs was higher than the other two systems. There are sustainability trade-offs with each system.

Walsh is right: improvements do need to be made in the mainstream food system. We also need to move beyond the current polarized debate and be willing to critically examine credible information that will inform our decisions about what constitutes a socially and scientifically sustainable food system.

So, how do we overcome the bias that “big food” is bad and build trust with consumers? The Center for Food Integrity recently released its 2013 research, which provides a roadmap to a seven-step process for Trust-Building Transparency.

The seven elements of the Trust-Building Transparency model include:

  • Motivations — Act in a manner that is ethical and consistent with stakeholder interests.
  • Disclosure — Share publicly all information both positive and negative.
  • Stakeholder participation — Engage those interested in your activities or impact.
  • Relevance — Share information stakeholders deem relevant.
  • Clarity — Share information that is easily understood and easily obtained.
  • Credibility — Share positive and negative information that supports informed stakeholder decision making and have a history of operating with integrity.
  • Accuracy — Share information that is truthful, objective, reliable and complete.

In addition to the seven components of the Trust-Building Transparency model, CFI tested 33 attributes in the 2013 survey. The results show that CFI’s definition of Trust-Building Transparency rings true with the public. More than half of the respondents gave ratings of 8-10 on a 10-point scale on all 33 attributes. More importantly, women and early-adopting opinion leaders, who drive public discussion of food and farming issues, rated the elements of Trust-Building Transparency higher than others.

Regardless of which side of the debate you sit on, providing transparency to our consumers will help to address the growing skepticism about today’s food. The Trust-Building Transparency model is a clear path, if implemented effectively, to help companies and organizations build trust with their stakeholders and consumers.



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One comment

  1. The fact that anyone even thinks about “that big companies will put profits ahead of public interest.” is a sad documentary into how deeply socialism type thinking has corrupted and perverted our culture. The only reason any company exit tests is to make a profit. This is as true and fundamental regardless if the company is involved in agriculture or any other sector.

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