Hamburger

Consumers want to know what's in their hamburgers. Photo/Getty Images

Consumers want transparency. Are you ready?

If you’re growing weary of hearing about the need for further transparency in this age of consumer inquisitiveness and activism, then consider the implications of recent research from the Center for Food Integrity (CFI).

“Transparency works,” says Charlie Arnot, CFI CEO. “We have statistical data to show that increasing transparency in farming, food production and processing will increase consumer trust.”

Arnot is talking about results from CFI’s research report titled A Clear View of Transparency and How it Builds Consumer Trust. It includes results from an online survey of 2,000 people, exploring which attributes are most important to consumers when it comes to trust-building transparency – policies, practices, performance or verification.

Research focused on these areas of consumer concern:

  • Impact of food on health
  • Food safety
  • Impact on the environment
  • Human/labor rights
  • Treatment of animals raised for food
  • Business ethics in food production

“Consumers want to know more about what you are actually doing in these important areas,” Arnot says. “They also want the ability to engage by asking questions through the company website and they expect straight answers in a timely fashion.”

While this pertains directly to food companies, Arnot points out that companies may increasingly rely upon more information from suppliers in order to provide consumers the transparency they seek.

Consider third-party verification as an example.

“This study clearly shows consumers hold food companies most responsible for demonstrating transparency in all six areas,” Arnot says. “Even when it comes to on-farm animal care, an area one might assume people look to farmers to provide, consumers told us food companies are most responsible. This could lead to food companies requiring more information from their suppliers and reporting more information to consumers when it comes to the treatment of animals raised for food.”

As chronicled over time in BEEF magazine, various food companies are already going down this road.

Incidentally, Arnot adds, “Third-party audits of animal well-being and food safety practices are the minimum level of investment for transparency, but because it’s somebody from outside an organization reporting on its performance, a third-party audit doesn’t reflect the organization’s values and therefore is not as powerful in demonstrating transparency.”

Examples of practices that demonstrate transparency include the information provided on product labels, offering engagement opportunities through company websites and protecting whistleblowers.

Need for transparency grows with consumer concern

Understanding more about what grows consumer trust is good news, considering current and emerging technologies that will require plenty of transparency.

The ongoing debate over the judicial use of antibiotics in livestock comes to mind. As well, there is growing concern that debates in that arena could ultimately carry over to other long-used technologies.

There are the occasional black swans like the recent blunder by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer. And there’s all of the new stuff, too, like the Food and Drug Administration granting approval to GMO salmon, after years of foot-dragging.

Bernie Rollins, distinguished professor and university bioethicist at Colorado State University—a longtime friend of beef producers—offered insights about consumers’ evolving views of animal welfare in a BeefVet article earlier this year. The point is germane to all of these other issues.

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“How many of you think that people advocating for animal welfare or for animal rights are a small group of crazies, malcontents, ingrates or extremists that don’t appreciate the fact that we have the safest food supply in the world, blah, blah, blah?” Rollin asks. “If people in defense of animals were radicals and extremists, they (animal-welfare-based referenda) could not, by definition, pass by a handy majority.”

Rollin explains that state referenda spearheaded by the Humane Society of the United States in a dozen states—aimed at things like banning battery cages, veal crates and sow stalls—have all passed by margins of at least 2 to 1.

“Blindness to obvious points like this can hinder your ability to manage issues such as referenda that dictate change to animal agriculture,” Rollin explains.

 

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