Consolidation and integration in the pork industry are creating a credibility deficit, which left unaddressed will continue to challenge its operating freedom. The 2010 Consumer Trust Research conducted by the Center for Food Integrity shows consumers are more likely to trust small farms over large farms when it comes to food safety, business practices and responsible animal care.

The new survey data clearly shows there’s an inverse relationship between size and trust. As farms and hog operations become larger, it’s increasingly difficult for consumers who are generationally and geographically removed from agriculture to understand today’s pork industry and to trust its commitment to do what’s right.

The trend is easy to understand. The subprime mortgage crisis, the Wall Street bonus scandal and BP’s Gulf oil spill are examples that have increased public skepticism toward big business. Consumer definitions of what constitutes a large farm vary wildly, but we know today’s pork production systems do not match the traditional perception of farming. Pork production has changed structurally in the past 30 years, and it now requires that farmers work harder to demonstrate a commitment to doing what’s right and communicate it in a way that’s meaningful to those who can influence their success.

That means promoting today’s food system, including pork production and processing, as responsible and ethical instead of relying solely on science to defend the status quo. It’s all about doing a better job of communicating farmers’ values and backing up those messages with responsible, verified on-farm practices. It requires recognizing the importance of how consumers feel and what they believe, not just what they know.

Sometimes those in the food system talk about consumers as if they were a marching band moving in lock step. The public is not monolithic; in reality, the consuming public is no more homogenous than the U.S. pork industry.  For most consumers, pork production issues are not top of mind. However, there is a vocal and influential minority who is very interested in what you do.

Agriculture has traditionally focused on science and economics to explain why farms are bigger than they used to be and why production methods have changed. But research illustrates that communicating shared values is three to five times more important to people than talking about science or competence. In other words, “They don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

Consumers in focus groups say they trust farmers, but they’re not sure that what’s occurring today is really farming. Consumer opinion leaders are deeply skeptical about today’s food system, and they don’t believe that technology and productivity improvements have improved food safety, nutrition, animal well-being or agriculture’s impact on the environment.

The CFI 2010 research results are instructive for anyone with a stake in food production, and they can provide a road map. This includes identifying opinion leaders, knowing how to most effectively engage them and then fundamentally redefining today’s food system. Stakeholders must consistently communicate and demonstrate that today’s food system is the ethical choice for people, animals and the planet.

Opinion leaders who can drive social change are known as “early adopters.” They are the gatekeepers of change, and they must be engaged to build support for today’s pork industry.

Early adopters want information from unbiased sources they deem as credible, and having a financial interest in the issue reduces credibility. This is true for all businesses, not just farming.

Early adopters tend to find academics credible because they are knowledgeable and don’t have a specific financial interest in the information. For the same reason, nonprofit organizations score high marks, as do veterinarians because of their knowledge and ethical commitment to animal care.

CFI’s 2010 research indicates consumers find information from a nongovernmental organization significantly more credible than from a group that profits from the meat industry. The Humane Society of the United States is seen as the most credible voice for the humane treatment of animals — something animal agriculture may not want to hear, but it’s important to understand.

The survey also shows clear gender differences. Women are much more likely to be early adopters involvling issues related to the food system. Such women are on the leading edge of societal change, and farmers need to engage them to demonstrate a commitment to doing what’s right and that today’s pork industry is willing to earn their trust.

These results make it increasingly important for food-system organizations to partner with a variety of credible groups and connect with consumers, using shared values. Demonstrating farmers share an ethical obligation to produce safe, nutritious food, protect the environment and ensure animals are well cared for is critically important.

Online information sources are key. The survey found that roughly 30 percent of early adopting consumers reported that online sources were their preferred channel for information on food-system issues, followed by friends and family and their local television station. Traditional media sources, including newspapers and radio, were least preferred.

This trend is positive for the food system in general and the pork industry specifically. It suggests that those in the food system can engage effectively and efficiently online. Information that is meaningful and relevant to early adopters must be provided from sources they view as credible in innovative online platforms that are engaging. If the food system leads a balanced, informative dialogue on these issues, it will significantly increase early adopters’ confidence and enhance consumer trust.

The research provides a framework to build values-based messaging and support it with information from credible sources that will enhance confidence in statements such as:

  • Raising animals indoors is beneficial to the animal.
  • Increasing production and availability of affordable food is a critical need today.
  • More intensive farming methods are better for the environment.
  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration strictly regulates antibiotics given to animals raised for food.
  • The majority of the additional food needed to feed the growing global population will need to come from advancements in farming technology.
  • In the next 40 years we need to double the amount of food produced on the same amount of land to protect the environment and preserve our natural resources.

The relatively basic information provided to enhance confidence in these statements created a statistically significant change in early adopters’ attitudes. What’s more, the information was presented in a simple way — text on a computer screen. While this may not be the most compelling way to share information, it generated significant changes in attitude. 

Just think what could be accomplished with imaginative platforms that share information and engage those early adopters in a balanced, compelling manner.

The ultimate challenge is to fundamentally re-frame the entire discussion about food. For too long there have been two polarizing schools of thought.

On one side are people who say that conventional agriculture is unhealthy, unethical and unsustainable. The agriculture community has responded by saying, “That’s not us and here’s the science to prove it.” Relying on science and attacking the attackers is insufficient to build consumer trust in today’s pork industry; it’s time for a new approach.

Stakeholders from across food production need to encourage an informed discussion about the best ways to produce the food that consumers need, using fewer resources through responsible production, processing and distribution because that’s the ethical choice for people, animals and the planet. It’s time to stop defending and attacking and time to redefine the discussion.