Early on the evening of April 13, 1970, Jack Swigert, pilot of Apollo 13’s command module, radioed the now famous phrase, “I believe we’ve had a problem here.”
His words immediately set in motion the incredible teamwork needed to diagnose what had happened and to find a solution to a very serious situation. Since then, “Houston, we have a problem” (a misquote) is used to describe everything from personal problems or sports goof-ups to the biggest business failures.
Unfortunately, if somebody needs to say, “Agriculture, we have a problem,” the systems we’d need for problem recognition and response are basically absent in primary agriculture and even up the food chain.
Few farmers even acknowledge that a majority of consumers have real concerns about agriculture and the food we produce. So far the strategy seems, for the most part, to have been, “Let’s ignore them.”
Except now, the numbers are getting too big, and the concerns too deep. Moderate consumers — the consumers who should be our base — are questioning if the food they eat is safe!
We lag far behind the rest of the food sector in this.
Industry has long realized consumer trust in the food system is an increasing problem, and in 2007, industry and commodity groups south of the border created the Kansas-based Center for Food Integrity (CFI). CFI has a goal of earning the trust of consumers in the food system. The stated mission of CFI: “Help today’s food system earn consumer trust.”
In May 2016, Farm & Food Care Canada set up a Canadian affiliate of the centre. Crystal Mackay, president of the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity (CCFI) says her organization “seeks to earn consumers’ trust through co-ordination of food research, public forums, and providing training opportunities for food industry participants.”
The first step in solving any problem is recognizing whether there is a problem, which is why both the Canadian and U.S. centres have conducted surveys to determine the level of consumer trust in the food system. The results are simply shocking.
In the 2016 CCFI survey, only 30 per cent of respondents felt the Canadian food system was headed in the right direction. Almost as many, 21 per cent, felt it was headed in the wrong direction. Half of Canadians replied they were unsure.
When presented with a broad list of life issues such as unemployment, health care costs and the economy, the issue most frequently identified in the survey as a concern by Canadian consumers was the “rising cost of food” (69 per cent) followed closely by “keeping healthy food affordable” at 66 per cent.
To put that into perspective, only 57 per cent of respondents expressed concerns about energy costs.
And then it gets worse. In the just-released 2017 trust survey, the Canadian economy does not even make the top five. Concerns about the economy have been displaced by consumers’ increasing anxiety about their food.
Even though Canadians spend just 9.1 per cent of disposable income on food (2015 USDA data) and only four other countries spend a smaller share of their income on food (U.S., Singapore, U.K., and Switzerland), the rising cost of food is the number one concern of Canadian consumers.
And this is happening as the prices that farmers receive continue to fall.
Furthermore, when asked their impression of various sectors of the food chain, only 39 per cent had favourable impressions of grocery stores and food retailers, 35 per cent for government and government agencies, and 30 per cent for food industry associations.
Opportunities for farmers
The survey was not all bad news, however. It also revealed that consumers’ impressions of farmers are more favourable than any other profession, i.e. more favourable than their impressions of doctors, nurses, teachers, researchers, and even friends and family.
In all, 69 per cent of respondents answered that they have favourable impressions of farmers.
There was one other very important finding in the trust survey too. While 93 per cent of respondents admitted to knowing little, very little, or nothing about farming, 60 per cent said they wanted to learn more. Unfortunately, however, there have been limited opportunities for consumers to get accurate information about farming or to direct their food concerns to actual farmers.
Instead, most consumers seek information about farming and food online. And that is a real problem.
“Google searches are not returning credible links to food safety searches,” Mackay reports. Instead, she says factual information about farming and food safety is being lost in the noise from self-appointed experts and activists.
Mackay points out that if farmers want to share their messages online, they need to compete with the likes of the Food Babe who gets 200,000 hits per day on her website.
But now there’s a credible online voice, that may change the landscape, via Best Food Facts.
Best Food Facts is an interactive website where consumers can pose questions about food. There are over 200 university-based experts, dietitians and farmers from across North America available to provide factual answers to queries about food.
The credentials of all the respondents are provided on the website so consumers can judge the qualifications of the person(s) providing answers to their questions. Previously posed questions and answers are also searchable on the Best Food Facts website.
Best Food Facts also disseminates information and factual articles about food, food production and food safety through their website and through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest and Google+.
Best Food Facts is a website that every farmer should be aware of and a resource we should be referring consumers to.
But even more important is what individual farmers should be doing to address the food safety concerns of consumers. Mackay says there are three rules every farmer must follow every day if we are to address the consumer’s distrust of our farming and food system:
- You are always on duty as an ambassador for the food industry.
- Engage in one conversation at a time.
- No question is a dumb question.
Time is short
American consumers, for the most part, have already made up their minds. In Canada, by contrast, most consumers are still looking for information.
This means Canadian farmers still have the opportunity to influence consumer perceptions of food safety and production systems, but only if we make active efforts immediately.
Failure to address consumer concerns will only ensure we follow the path that farmers in the EU and U.S. are already heading down, where they face increased regulations and consumer opposition to farming and food production.
The Canadian Centre for Food Integrity is perhaps the best ally farmers have for addressing consumer concerns about food safety. Yet how many farmers have even heard of it?
If you are unaware of the CCFI and what it does, it is imperative you check out the CCFI website today.