The perception that a food company has high ethical standards may be more important to consumer trust even than its ability to demonstrate competence, according to a presentation from CEO of the Center for Food Integrity Charlie Arnot.
Arnot told delegates at the recent Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) conference in Orlando, Florida that the food industry often answers consumer questions about the ethics of certain processes or practices with scientific information about the practices themselves. However, in order to retain consumer trust, companies should recognize questions about ethics and values, and answer underlying concerns, he said.
These may include the humane treatment of animals, or the safety of genetically modified organisms or nanotechnology, for example.
“In the past we have answered their questions by saying that science says we can,” he said. “Can and should are not the same question.”
According to research published in the Journal of Rural Sociology, confidence in food companies’ ethical values is more important to maintaining consumer trust than the ability to demonstrate competence.
Arnot said: “What we found on every level is that confidence or demonstration of shared values is three to five times as important as demonstration of competence…It is easier for consumers to relate to the values of an individual than those of an entity.”
When it comes to priorities driving consumer purchase decisions, food safety is the number one concern, and a recall or food safety scandal can taint the reputation of an entire industry sector.
“There is significant economic value to maintaining consumer trust,” Arnot said. “If something happens in your sector or your industry, social license is taken away from the whole sector. It’s never limited to the bad actor. So it’s important that we work together with colleagues.”
While Arnot said that trust has to be built on ethical grounding, he added that engaging stakeholders and external manifestation of values in best practices, certification and continuing education are also vital.
“You don’t have to always agree with stakeholders, but you do have to meet with them,” he said.