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Communication: Educating the public


“Lack of understanding on the part of consumers creates a huge information vacuum that is too frequently filled by our detractors,” Charlie Arnot, CEO of the Kansas City-based Center for Food Integrity, told attendees at the recent joint Ontario Farm Animal Council (OFAC) and Agricultural Groups Concerned About Resources and the Environment (AGCare) annual general meeting.

As a result, agriculture producers are finding their practices under scrutiny, and feeling as though they have to defend what they do. “Producers likely didn’t choose to be involved in public relations or public policy – most got involved in agriculture and food production because they have a passion for it,” he said. “They expect to have the freedom to operate their farms, but this freedom is being threatened by increased regulation, legislation, and market requirements.”

“We need to stop fighting the definition that others give us, and really start defining who we are, to build consumer trust,” he said.

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Until the Center for Food Integrity (CFI) was formed in 2007, building trust with consumers was not a strategy employed by agriculture. Traditionally, agriculture has employed two strategies to combat misinformation or questions concerning its practices: provide science-based reasoning, or go on the attack.

The CFI is a not-for-profit organization whose members represent each segment of the food chain, including farmers and ranchers, universities, food processors, restaurants, retailers, and food companies. The organization brings together stakeholders to reach consumers in meaningful ways with a unified voice. Its goal is to promote dialogue, model best practices, address issues that are important to consumers and serve as a resource for accurate, balanced information about the food system. The CFI does not lobby or advocate on behalf of individual food companies, producer groups or brands.

Early in its formation during a stakeholder engagement seminar, Arnot said he had an “aha” moment. “The vice-president of Social Corporate Responsibility for one of the leading global quick-service teams, said that agriculture thinks it has an image problem, but it doesn’t,” he said. “Agriculture has a trust problem.”

These are fundamentally different problems that require different approaches, said Arnot. So the CFI partnered with Iowa State University and decided to figure out what it takes to build trust in food.

The two groups performed a meta-analysis of 21 different pieces of existing research, and identified three common drivers for what leads consumers to have trust in something:

  • influential “others” (i.e., family, friends and other respected people who can influence opinion)
  • competence (technical ability, scientific validation)
  • confidence – a perception of shared values and ethics (i.e., can a consumer count on you to do what is right?)

They then surveyed 6,000 consumers over a period of three years on the issues of food safety, animal welfare, nutrition and sustainability. What they found is that, when it comes to building trust, shared values (confidence) are three to five times more important than competence.

Historically, the agriculture and food industries have spent the majority of their public relations efforts on competence, rather than on shared values, said Arnot. “In terms of how we engage with the public, we’ve had the equation backwards.”

Arnot said that consumers have questions: Should you be housing animals that way? Should you be feeding them the way you do? Should you be using that crop technology, or using GM seed? “We’ve told them that science says we can,” he said. “But we’ve been answering the wrong question. We’ve substituted scientific validation for ethical justification.”

He said that sometimes the industry has undermined its own credibility simply by talking about who it is, and what it does. It answers consumers’ questions with responses such as “we take care of the animals and the land because if we’re more productive, we’re more profitable.” He, like many others, has used a similar type of response, he said. But by doing so, producers are giving consumers the idea that they are not doing it because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s profitable.

Opponents of agriculture (activist groups, environmental groups, etc.) rate higher in terms of a moral hierarchy in the minds of consumers because their values are committed to a cause, based on a set of principles (i.e., the “right” thing to do). Business ranks lower on the scale, “so when we come to the table talking in terms of profit, we are coming to the table three touchdowns down,” said Arnot.

“We come in with a significant credibility deficit. Is it right? Is it justified? No, but it’s reality, so we have to deal with it.”

The good news is that consumers have trust in farmers. The problem is, they aren’t sure that contemporary food production is still considered farming, he said.

The CFI has developed a model for communicating with consumers that can be used by agricultural groups and those involved in the food industry. The model was developed to protect a producer’s freedom to operate, and protect the “social licence” to produce food. A social licence, in this context, is defined as the privilege of operating with minimal formalized restrictions (i.e., regulations, market requirements) based on maintaining public trust by doing what’s right.

“If the public trusts you to do what is right, they will grant you that social licence,” said Arnot. “They won’t feel the need to restrict your freedom to operate.”

This social licence is not an act of altruism, said Arnot, but rather enlightened self-preservation. “It’s an opportunity for you to demonstrate that you are operating in a way that is consistent with a consumer’s values.”

The CFI model is based on three pillars of sustainable balance: scientific verification, economic viability and ethical grounding.

“We can’t get rid of science, we have to have good science,” said Arnot. “But it has to play a different role in our public conservation.”

Of course, if a production system is not economically viable, then it is not sustainable. This needs to remain part of the discussion, but, like science, it cannot be the sole reasoning or justification for producing food using certain production practices, because it holds no “value” to a consumer. “We need to help consumers understand the benefits of agricultural production practices to society, not just to us,” said Arnot

What is really key to the model is the premise of being ethically grounded. “When we talk about science, we have increased a consumer’s knowledge, but we haven’t changed anything about what the person believes or how they may feel, and this person is more likely to act on the latter,” he said.

The CFI has redefined agriculture as the “ethical” choice – in order to produce the food we need, we must do so with fewer resources using responsible systems. “This creates a very broad base of support, and the nice part is that this is what agriculture has been doing for the last 40 to 50 years.”

But we haven’t approached it in the right way, as we haven’t let consumers know how our increases in efficiency benefit them or society. We must change our language, Arnot said: telling consumers that increases in efficiency use less land and water, and have a smaller environmental footprint, is more reassuring than simply telling them we are more efficient.

“We have good ethical reasons for what we do; we just need to change our language to make it meaningful to consumers,” he said.

Arnot gave an example of how to do this. When approached with a question regarding animal care from a concerned consumer, he suggested giving an answer similar to the following: “As a food producer, I recognize that I have an ethical obligation to the animals, my employees, the environment, my customers and my community. Here is what I am doing every day to live up to this . . .”

Arnot said that the agriculture industry can overcome bias in size and practices used if it shows commitment to four key values: safe food, the environment, care for animals and contribution to community.

This value-based communication is essential to CFI’s trust model. The model has three strategic platforms: build trust via communication, redefine the food system as the “ethical” choice, and support consumer choice.

The CFI works with agricultural and food industry groups on messaging as well as ongoing research. Working with food retailers and processors began in 2010 because of increasing pressure from animal activists. Currently, activists meet with big brands such as Costco, Wal-Mart and McDonald’s quarterly in Washington, D.C. Ongoing CFI research has helped retailers understand that, when it comes to who is responsible for animal welfare, retailers are at the bottom, and they don’t have to own the issue or take responsibility for it.

Activist groups such as the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) have focused on retailers and state legislators for the past few years, and have deep pockets: they are beginning to employ the same types of tactics here in Canada.

That has Paul Hodgman, former executive director of Alberta Pork and a speaker at the joint OFAC/AGCare meeting, worried. He has been hired by the farm animal councils in Canada to help develop a Canadian food industry strategy to bridge the gaps in the supply chain between the farm and the food industies.

As the CFI realized, Hodgman says here in Canada, we need to approach the issue of animal activism in agriculture in new ways.

“The issues we are dealing with are so national and universal in scope, that dealing with it as one commodity is too difficult,” he says.

The changes activist groups demand seem small and for the better of animals, but these groups are never satisfied, and will continue to push for more. “This costs money, and producers don’t have much say in it. The whole supply chain is affected,” he says.

He notes that Canada’s agriculture industry is fragmented; our supplier, food producers and retailers don’t always talk to one another and don’t have strategy sessions. That’s why the existing farm animal councils in Canada are working together to develop the strategy, with the goal of enhancing consumer trust and confidence in food and farming in Canada.

The Canadian strategy will follow a lot of the core options in the CFI strategy, with some Canadian adaptations, says Crystal MacKay, executive director of OFAC. Specific objectives include addressing key areas such as animal welfare and the environment. Primary targets are the food industry, supply chain partners and agri-food industry professionals. Consumers are secondary targets. A better place for consumer outreach is the new FarmCare Foundation, developed in the fall of 2010 (www.farmcarefoundation.ca).

“We haven’t done enough on the proactive and advocacy side,” says Hodgman. “We don’t need to apologize for who we are; we need to change our tactics. We are in a position where we are going to lose our social licence to produce food, and we need to build trust within the system.”

A report on the strategy was completed at the end of April, and implementation of the plan is expected to begin on Sept. 1, 2011.