“The numbers paint a dim picture: Only about a third of consumers think the agriculture community and food companies are transparent. Yet nearly two-thirds (65%) of consumers want more food production knowledge.”

– Sullivan, Higdon & Sink, FoodThink: Evolving Trust in the Food Industry


agricultureFrom time to time, anyone with the most basic knowledge of general food safety issues will find themselves hesitating when purchasing food.

A 2016 white paper published by marketing and advertising firm Sullivan, Higdon and Sink revealed that only around one-third of consumers trust information from the agriculture and food manufacturing sectors, but that number is on the rise. The same study also found that about 65 percent of people say that it is somewhat or very important to know how their food is produced.

Meanwhile, the most recent data displays an upward trend in the number of food recalls, which is a key indicator of food safety along the supply chain.

Consumer Survey Data

In a study of over 2,000 US consumers, the Sullivan, Higdon and Sink researchers accumulated and analyzed survey data across three important food safety topics: (1) consumer trust in the food production process, (2) consumer demand for food information, and (3) consumer attitudes about various food information and news sources.

Consumer trust in food production

In 2012, just 22 percent of those surveyed said they believed the agriculture industry was transparent; 19 percent said the same about food companies. In 2016, the percentage of people feeling the same way about these industries had risen to 37 and 34 percent, respectively. Although these results suggest there’s still a pretty significant lack of consumer trust, both the agriculture community and food manufacturing companies’ perceived transparency increased 15 percentage points between 2012 and 2016.

Demographics appear to have a significant impact. Parents and millennials are more likely to view the agriculture industry and food companies as transparent. 41 percent of parents trust agriculture; 42 percent trust the food companies. Meanwhile, 43 percent of Millennials trust agriculture and 41 percent trust food companies.

Researchers attribute this rise in consumer trust to dissemination of food safety news and other information to the public. However, the same researchers state that much more work needs to be done to encourage greater public trust in the agriculture and food industries.

Consumer demand for food information

Overall, 65 percent of the people surveyed believe it’s important to have access to food production information. This is down four percentage points from 2012.

Certain segments of the population are more likely to demand access to such information. Consumers of organic products, by a large margin, think it’s important to learn more about how the food they eat is produced, with 86 percent affirming this belief. About 73 percent of those who describe themselves as “good cooks” feel the same way, as do 68 percent of mothers and women.

Millennials, non-parents, males, and self-described “bad cooks” surveyed below the 65 percent average.

Consumer attitudes about food information sources

In addition, the research reaffirms the notion that people view their friends and family as the most trustworthy sources of food production information. Survey respondents also reported that they turned to farmers and ranchers, medical professionals, the USDA, and the FDA for such information.

Less than 50% of respondents consider the following groups trustworthy when it comes to food production information: grocers and food retailers, academia, food companies and manufacturers, social media, blogging sites, news outlets, pharmaceutical companies, and political leaders.

However, the “less than trustworthy” groups showed the largest increases in perceived trustworthiness from 2012 to 2016. Trust in government leaders increased over 11 percent in this four-year period; mass media, 9 percent; pharmaceutical companies, 14 percent; blogging and social media sites, 15 percent; and food companies and manufacturers, 17 percent.

Recent Recall Data

vegetablesAccording to the Stericycle ExpertSOLUTIONS Q3 2016 Recall Index, FDA recalls increased 34% from the second quarter of 2016 to the third—the highest rate of increase since the first quarter of 2010. The index also reported that USDA recalls were up 36%.

According to the index, approximately 89 percent of all FDA-recalled products were due to the presence of bacterial contaminants. Vegetables accounted for nearly 87 percent of FDA recalls.

A large amount of USDA recalls were in the poultry category, which accounted for about 51 percent of the total volume of the agency’s recalls. Approximately 39 percent of USDA recalls were mixed protein products.

Additionally, the study cites that 15% of FDA food recalls were international, accounting for the highest proportion in at least four years.

Potential Implications

The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), widely considered one of the most sweeping pieces of food safety legislation in recent US history, cites the prevention and reduction of foodborne illness outbreaks as a major catalyst. As such, the data above pertaining to recalls may be perceived as a setback.

This aside, food safety experts throughout government, academia, and industry acknowledge that complex food safety legislation, such as the FSMA, will require at least a few years after enactment to realize measurable results. Future research studies and surveying of consumers will ultimately determine the effectiveness of the legislation.