Trust has been an eroding trait in the American psyche for some time. Some say it began with Watergate, others believe Enron placed a significant nail in that coffin. Certainly with the country’s current and long-reaching financial challenges, a distrust of many institutions — government and industry — is flourishing.

For some time now, that lack of trust has been spilling over to you and your farm. While you view your pork production operation as a business, and that’s a good thing, consumers also view your operation as a business, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. They find it harder to trust you and your on-farm actions when they think of agriculture as a business.

To be honest, we’re probably not helping much since we talk about the “pork industry” as much as “pork producers.” The word industry puts an entirely different face on what you do and who you are. “Farm” also has been replaced with “operation” or “system.” Words do matter, and while our internal language makes sense to us, for people who are less familiar with on-farm activities, too many of our words reinforce the idea of industrial agriculture.

Pork producers’ science-based mentality falls into this category as well. While basing decisions on science makes sense to us, it doesn’t always play as well with the public, especially as America slips further into a science deficit. That doesn’t mean pork producers should abandon science, but it’s equally important to accept that consumers expect something more. They expect to trust that you are doing the right things, and that’s based more on emotion than science.

Consumers do still trust you, the food producer, but that trust is slipping, according to the Center for Food Integrity’s latest survey. In July, CFI surveyed more than 2,000 U.S. consumers (54 percent female, 46 percent male).

“We have a lot more work to do to earn trust,” says Charlie Arnot, CFI’s chief executive officer. “Confidence that producers have the same shared values as consumers is five times more important to the consumer than the producers’ technical skills or competency.”

Here’s a snapshot of some of the survey’s food-safety take-away points:

  • Consumer trust in food safety is declining. Only 28 percent indicated a strong confidence in the safety of their food, which is significantly lower than a year ago.
  • They see farmers/producers (you) as the most responsible for food safety, followed by food companies/processors and themselves.
  • As for the government, only 32 percent strongly disagreed that it’s doing a good job of ensuring food safety.
  • A bit sobering is the fact that only 51 percent have a strong trust of food produced in the United States compared to food that is produced elsewhere.
  • In terms of doing something about food safety, they trust themselves first, then you, and they see you fairly willing to comply. 

It should come as little surprise, given the growing public attention on animal-welfare issues, state ballot initiatives and other activities in recent years, that the humane treatment questions reflected some particularly concerning trends.

  • “If farm animals are treated decently and humanely, I have no problem consuming meat, milk and eggs” = 55 percent of respondents strongly agreed.
  • However, only 16 percent strongly agreed that “U.S. meat is derived from humanely treated animals”; 29 percent strongly disagreed with that statement.
  • Here’s a particularly unsettling one: “Farm animals that are raised for food should be treated the same way household pet owners treat their pets” = 24 percent strongly agreed; only 29 percent strongly disagreed.
  • “I would support a law in my state to ensure the humane treatment of farm animals” = 47 percent strongly agreed; only 10 percent strongly disagreed.
  • Far and away they see you as most responsible for the humane treatment of farm animals. They trust you first and most to do the right thing, but advocacy groups ranked a close second, and that’s worth taking very seriously.

Clearly there’s a lot more work to do in this area. “Farmers and producers can strengthen consumer trust by demonstrating that producers share their values,” Arnot notes, “and by proving that producers are doing what they say.”

There’s so much talk about sustainable food production today that CFI asked consumers a bit about it, and found there’s no consensus about what it is or who’s responsible. That means there’s an opportunity to define and shape that conversation. While price takes priority over sustainability in food purchasing decisions for 17 percent of the respondents, 32 percent made sustainability a priority, leaving 48 percent somewhere in the middle. Most weren’t confident their purchases made an impact.

Finally, another disappointing response was that only 23 percent strongly agreed that U.S. food is among the world’s most affordable. What’s more, 24 percent strongly disagreed. It’s an example of taking what you have for granted. While food prices have been on the rise lately, for years U.S. consumers have spent less than 10 cents on the dollar for food — the world’s lowest rate. That’s a message agriculture should have been driving home longer and harder.

In the end, the survey shows that there’s opportunity to shape the dialogue with consumers about what you do, but there’s also a growing urgency for that dialogue to change and expand.

Visit the Center for Food Integrity Web site and get more information about the consumer trust survey.