As can be expected, consumers first and foremost want their food to be safe, affordable and nutritious. They do not consider a farm’s profitability and productivity to be a priority. They don’t see or don’t want to see food production as a business.
Here, consumers ranked the priorities for their food choices. The numbers are combined scores, reflecting consumers' greatest to least priority.
As can be expected, consumers first and foremost want their food to be safe, affordable and nutritious. They do not consider a farm’s profitability and productivity to be a priority. They don’t see or don’t want to see food production as a business. Here, consumers ranked the priorities for their food choices. The numbers are combined scores, reflecting consumers' greatest to least priority.

With an eye toward the new year, pork producers might consider a resolution aimed at bolstering consumer trust and confidence. A suggestion based on the Center for Food Integrity’s consumer trust research: Redouble your commitment to demonstrate that today’s pork operations are consistent with consumer expectations.

For the past five years, CFI’s consumer research has monitored how perceptions change regarding issues that are important to pork producers and others in the food system. The most recent study reveals a troubling gap between what consumers believe farmers’ goals should be and what consumers perceive as farmers’ actual goals.

The reality is, if the perception of shared values and shared priorities doesn’t exist — if there isn’t alignment between consumer expectations and producer performance — consumers won’t trust the pork industry to do the right thing. CFI’s 2011 study clearly shows that consumers are much more likely to believe that “family” farms share their priorities and their values than “commercial” farms.

But what is the difference between “family” and “commercial” farmers? Survey participants were provided with these definitions:

• Family farmer: A farming operation owned and operated by a family. All decisions on how to operate the farm are made by the family members and carried out by family members or employees.

• Commercial farmer: A farming operation owned by a company and operated by employee farmers.  All decisions on how to operate this farm are made by managers of the company and carried out by employees.

In CFI’s latest study, consumers were asked to rank their priorities for the food system (see Figure 1). Not surprisingly they ranked safe, affordable and nutritious food as their top priorities. Farm profitability and productivity were at the bottom.

Consumers were then asked to rank what they believe the priorities are for family farms and commercial farms, as well as what the priorities should be for both. When analyzing that information (see Figure 2) it’s important to look for alignment between what the priorities are and what they should be for each type of farm.

You will see that the alignment for family farmers is pretty strong. The same cannot be said for commercial farmers.

Consumers believe farm profitability is the second-highest priority for commercial farmers, but they believe it should be second to last. There also is significant misalignment on farm productivity and, to a lesser degree, environmental sustainability, humane treatment of farm animals and nutritious food.

The adoption of new technology has drastically changed the face of the pork industry over the last 50 years. While a swine operation might be legally structured as a family farm and an individual producer might feel his/her operation is comparatively small, the farm’s appearance and commonly used technology would make it a commercial farm in consumers’ eyes.

An inverse relationship exists between the perception of shared values and priorities for commercial farms. Consumers fear commercial farms will place profit above principle and cut corners when it comes to other priorities. As farms continue to change in size and scale we must overcome this bias by more consistently and effectively demonstrating a commitment to consumers’ values and priorities.

A growing number of consumers go to the Internet to find answers to questions about the food system. CFI’s research shows “early adopters,” the population segment most capable of affecting people’s overall attitudes and opinions, increasingly get their food information online — not local television as previous studies revealed. What’s more, only half of survey participants said they had access to all the information they need to make good food decisions.

When early adopters research food topics they want to hear from experts and be shown the process — they want to see it for themselves. As many in the food-animal sector are painfully aware, what consumers tend to see online are videos from activists and others. Offering online video tours of modern pork production facilities can provide the opportunity to advance transparency.

Moreover, transparency and effectively communicating values can overcome the bias that exists surrounding a farm’s size. CFI’s “Farmers Feed US” website features video interviews of real farmers using modern technology. The featured pork producers include contract finishers and integrators. Surveys of more than 3,000 consumers who have been to the site show 95 percent of them say they consider the farmers to be “knowledgeable, approachable and the kind of person I want producing my food.”

The website images show contemporary operations — those that consumers probably consider “commercial farms.”

Early adopters do tend to look favorably upon third-party verification programs, according to CFI research. In 2010, CFI described elements of common animal well-being programs such as the National Pork Board’s PQA Plus in order to survey participants to see which were most important.

The fact that the elements were science-based ranked dead last. Consumers felt much better that veterinarians were involved, that food companies required completion of an animal well-being program and that third-party verification ensured a program’s elements were being implemented and routinely practiced.

Consumers need to consistently see and hear that you share their concerns about humane animal care and respect for the environment, and are committed to producing safe, nutritious food. We know that as pork production continues to change in size and scale we can no longer assume consumers believe we’re doing the right thing. The larger you are and the more technology you use, the more investment you must make in demonstrating a commitment to consumer values.

A resolution in the new year to redouble your efforts to demonstrate that your values align with consumer expectations can go a long way toward bolstering consumer confidence in you and your product.