DESPITE the desire to know more about where food comes from, many American consumers are not knowledgeable about food production, and the majority do not think the agriculture industry is transparent about farming and food production practices, according to a recent study conducted by marketing agency Sullivan Higdon & Sink (SHS).
In a white paper on consumer trust released earlier this month, SHS detailed the results of a late-2012 survey involving 1,457 U.S. adult consumers who had joint or primary responsibility for food and grocery decisions in their household. The survey found that only 40% of Americans felt they had a good level of knowledge about food production, although 69% said it is important to understand how food is produced.
Parents and self-described "good cooks" tended to have more knowledge about food production than the average American, with the cooks being 31% more likely to have good knowledge of food production (Figure 1). On the other hand, only 10% of self-described "bad cooks" felt they had a good knowledge level, suggesting that less skill, interest in and enjoyment of cooking are likely to correlate to a lesser understanding of food production.
Consumer opinion clearly showed a lack of trust in food companies and the agriculture industry. Only 19% of consumers somewhat or strongly agree that food companies are transparent about how food is produced, and only 22% feel that the agriculture community is transparent about production (Figure 2).
On the other hand, 52% do not believe food companies are transparent about how food is produced, and 45% of those surveyed feel the same about the agriculture community. What is interesting is that as knowledge of food production increased, survey respondents tended to have greater trust of food companies and the agriculture community.
Perhaps not surprising, the survey reported broad confusion about organic foods, with only 46% of American consumers saying they understand the requirements for a food to be labeled as organic, and 45% feel that organic-labeled food is "healthier than conventional food."
Moms, in particular, place a high value on food knowledge, with 77% of those surveyed saying it is important to learn more about food production.
According to a separate survey commissioned by CommonGround, a coalition of farm women organized by the United Soybean Board and the National Corn Growers Assn., those moms may be making grocery-buying decisions based on faulty knowledge.
The coalition released the results of its survey of more than 1,000 moms' knowledge of and attitudes toward food and agriculture and found a disconnect between facts and beliefs about organic foods, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), hormones in meat, food labeling and family farms.
For example, 84% of respondents think that organic food is farmed without any pesticides, fertilizers or herbicides despite the fact that organic certification simply limits the types of fertilizers and crop protection products to approved non-synthetic products and methods rather than an outright prohibition on their application.
One-quarter of moms surveyed said they had never heard of GMOs, but 43% of those surveyed said GMO foods are nutritionally and chemically different from non-GMO products.
In reality, agencies like the Food & Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture have consistently found that biotech crops and ingredients are nutritionally and chemically identical to their non-biotech varieties.
Taken in tandem, the two surveys present several stiff challenges for food producers and marketers while identifying opportunities for the food and agriculture community to establish consumer trust and improve consumer confidence.
Responding to the SHS white paper, University of Tennessee policy analysts Daryll Ray and Harwood Schaffer noted the importance of understanding consumer perceptions -- or misconceptions -- and recognizing their validity.
"The point is clear: Farmers and ranchers need to pay attention to the changing attitudes of their ultimate customer -- the woman or the man at the retail counter," they said. "To keep these consumers coming back, producers will need to be transparent about their production practices and willing to modify those that would reduce demand for the animal protein they produce."