The bigger the food company, the less consumers trust it, reveals new research

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Charlie Arnot: 'There’s an inverse relationship between the size of an organization and the perception of shared values.'
Charlie Arnot: 'There’s an inverse relationship between the size of an organization and the perception of shared values.'

Related tags Food companies

Big food companies are consistently trusted less than small, entrepreneurial ones, even though their scale and resources arguably mean they are able to produce products more safely, efficiently and sustainably than their smaller, sexier, counterparts, according to new research.  

Speaking to reporters in a webinar ahead of the release of the Center for Food Integrity’s new transparency index – unveiled at the CFI’s 2015 Food Integrity Summit in New Orleans this week - CFI chief executive Charlie Arnot said CFI research had revealed “a significant bias against size​”.

The index is a self-assessment tool that uses the criteria from CFI’s 2015 Consumer Trust Survey to assess how well a company demonstrates transparency practices that build trust with consumers, said Arnot. 

People believe that big is bad. There’s an inverse relationship between the size of an organization and the perception of shared values. Our qualitative and quantitative research shows that the larger the organization/company/farm, consumers are more likely to believe that it will put profit ahead of principle –that it will put its own interests above consumer interests every time.

“And if you can’t overcome that ‘big is bad’ motivation bias, then it’s very difficult to fundamentally to restore or build trust in your organization, farm or company,” ​he added.

Consumers are increasingly skeptical about ingredients that might be included but not named. Research shows consumers want to know all ingredients regardless of quantity. So the statement ‘and other ingredients’ does not provide enough information for today’s consumer, even if the statement meets government regulations.” 

Charlie Arnot, CEO, Center for Food Integrity

Consumers hold food companies significantly more responsible than farmers for transparency

For example, just under three out of 10 consumers say small farms or food manufacturers are ‘likely to put their interests ahead of my interests’, while 50% suspect this is the case for large farms and food manufacturers.   

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Another notable finding of the CFI’s research, added Arnot, is that when it comes to transparency, consumers expect more from food manufacturers than from farmers and retailers:  

There is very little responsibility allocated to grocery stores and restaurants when it comes to transparency. That’s consistent with what we’ve seen in the qualitative research as well.

“Particularly interesting is when it comes to the treatment of animals raised for food, consumers hold food companies significantly more responsible than farmers for transparency. That’s likely to lead to food companies requiring and doing more reporting when it comes to the treatment of animals raised for food."

As we’ve been exploring the concept of increased transparency over the last three years, our stakeholders have asked for greater guidance: ‘Tell me specifically what I need to be transparent about and how I can become more transparent so we can put that into practice.’ That’s the goal of the transparency index –giving companies and organizations the tools they need to be transparent and more trustworthy in the eyes of consumers.”

Charlie Arnot, CEO, Center for Food Integrity

“What we really wanted to explore in the 2015 research was whether or not transparency could be effective in overcoming that ‘big is bad’ bias.”

The CFI has been working with several ‘big food’ guinea pigs - Campbell Soup, Hershey, Tyson, Kroger, ConAgra Foods, Smithfield Foods, Monsanto, DuPont and Phibro Animal Health Scores – in order to explore what consumers want from these kinds of companies, he said.

Read more about what the CFI discovered HERE​.

Building trust with consumers


The CFI's research identified the following areas of importance to consumers when it comes to transparency:

Food safety and health:​ Consumers want to be able to engage via the company’s website and expect information to be provided in easy-to-understand language.

Environmental impact:​ When regulations are violated, corrective actions should be provided on the company website.

Labor and human rights:​ Consumers want the opportunity to ask questions about labor practices and human rights via the company website.

Animal well-being​: Results of third-party audits on animal care should be shared on the company website.

Business ethics:​ Consumers want companies to accept responsibility on the company website for all business activity. They also expect whistleblowers to be protected.

The Center for Food Integrity​ (CFI) is a not-for-profit organization on a mission “to build trust and confidence in today’s food system”, ​and counts food companies, retailers, NGOs, trade associations, academics, and other stakeholders in its 150+ strong membership.

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