DESPITE an overall improvement in the public's perception of farming and agriculture as an industry, roughly one in four consumers surveyed by Oklahoma State University reported losing trust in the food system at some point in the past.
Americans' views of farming and agriculture showed a marked improvement from a year ago, according to an August survey conducted by The Gallup Organization. It was one of seven U.S. industries that improved substantially this year, based on an increase of 10 points or more in what Gallup calls a "net positive rating."
Each year since 2001, Gallup has asked Americans to rate 25 different business sectors and industries on a five-point scale ranging from "very positive" to "very negative" and calculates the net ratings as the difference between the positive and negative ratings for each industry.
This year's survey found farming and agriculture to have the third-highest net positive rating, at 42, an increase of 10 points from 2012. Only the computer and restaurant industries had higher net positive ratings in this year's survey.
The banking, travel and real estate sectors showed the largest overall improvements from last year, likely indicating a broader improvement in the economy and increased consumer confidence.
Nine industries showed negative net positive ratings, and 12 industries (including banking and health care) lost ground compared with last year.
Breaking out the data, 60% of respondents had a positive feeling toward agriculture, 21% were neutral and only 18% rated the industry negatively.
Gallup's findings line up somewhat with the most recent edition of Oklahoma State's "Food Demand Survey" (FooDS), which is conducted monthly by agricultural economist Jayson Lusk. The September survey asked 1,000 respondents if they could "think of a time when you felt that you lost trust in the food system."
Forty percent said yes.
For those who answered in the affirmative, Lusk and colleagues followed up with an open-ended question asking for the specific circumstances that led to a loss of trust and then analyzed 413 typed responses. The researchers highlighted specific keywords, and responses were divided into eight different categories to determine relevant trends in the data.
Among the top keywords mentioned were genetically modified organisms (GMOs), with 24 specific mentions.
"Biotechnology seems to be a big contributor to a loss of trust in the food system," Lusk noted. "That said, most of the statements people typed had something to do with food safety issues."
Indeed, Lusk found that 113 responses had something to do with food safety issues, including Escherichia coli, avian influenza or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). Another 34 responses were categorized as a "personal experience" issue, most of which Lusk said related to stories of food poisoning.
Taken together, more than 35% of responses could be viewed as food safety related. By comparison, only 74 responses were categorized as "technology-related issues," with specific topics including GMOs, antibiotic use and lean, finely textured beef (called "pink slime" in untoward publicity).
"When I learned that genetically engineered foods did not have to be labeled as such," one respondent said, "I felt very betrayed by the food industry and the (Food & Drug Administration)."
Another said, "I used to buy ground beef, but when I heard 'pink slime,' I stopped buying it."
Food prices, animal welfare issues and general media coverage of agriculture were other categories Lusk defined from the survey's responses, but each received fewer than 50 mentions.
Among the questions regarding concerns over food issues, there were no major changes from the previous month, with E. coli, salmonella, hormones and antibiotics remaining the topics most concerning to consumers surveyed.
What's interesting, the terms "mad cow" and "pink slime" were each dubbed as more concerning to consumers than "BSE" or "lean, finely textured ground beef," even though the terms could be used interchangeably in media coverage.
A special question in the September survey asked consumers about Zilmax, Merck's beta-agonist that was heavily reported on in late August and early September due to animal welfare concerns and Tyson Fresh Meats' refusal to accept steers finished on the feed additive. The survey found that 84% of consumers had never even heard of the product, only 3.2% knew it was a beta-agonist and only 5% knew it was in the news due to animal care concerns.
In the "Daily Livestock Report," economists Len Steiner and Steve Meyer analyzed the FooDS report on the beta-agonist issue and put it into perspective.
"Most people don't know anything about what is happening in agriculture, don't look for such things and very likely don't care," they wrote. "The general public, even if it hears about these issues, yawns. Sometimes, we grossly overrate our importance in the daily lives of consumers."