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Transparency is real concern

Transparency is real concern

Consumers want to know more about where food comes from and how it is produced, but how much transparency is too much?

BUZZ words come and go, and in the past several years, agriculture has sifted through more than its fair share, with words such as organic, all-natural and sustainable becoming more and more prevalent in food marketing.

Perhaps the most important term in the agriculture lexicon in recent years, however, is "transparency," with consumers becoming vastly more interested in where their food comes from and how it is produced than at any point in recent memory.

However, the term transparency is not, in and of itself, the most transparent of terms. Does a desire for transparency, for example, mean labeling products that contain ingredients derived from genetically modified seed?

Labeling is not the only issue associated with the concept of transparency, certainly, as the livestock sector has seen more than a few "undercover" videos recorded by animal rights activists depicting instances of alleged abuses.

The actions shown in some videos have been widely denounced by an industry that abhors animal abuse, but other videos have been criticized for attempting to paint accepted industry practices such as tail docking and castration as outright animal abuse.

The transparency issue, however, is not going away, regardless of any concerns agricultural interests may have over how to best meet consumer demands for increased transparency in food production.

In a recent study conducted by the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance (USFRA), 58% of consumers surveyed said they frequently think about how the food they eat is grown or raised, and 71% said they have "serious or some concerns" about the methods that conventional, non-organic agriculture uses to produce food.

Compare those results with an Oklahoma State University survey conducted by economist Jayson Lusk earlier this year in which four in 10 consumers said they had "lost trust" in the food system at some point.

Fully 53% of the USFRA respondents said they "wondered frequently if the food they buy is safe."

Perhaps the most interesting finding in the USFRA study was the disconnect between how consumers feel about farmers versus how they feel about farming. While 75% of those surveyed said they felt very or somewhat favorable toward farmers and ranchers, only 42% held a similar attitude about the way food is grown and raised (Figure).

"Information about how a food product was grown and raised is important for consumers. It's almost as important as the price," said Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation and chairman of USFRA. "The research found that, when asked which is more important when making purchasing decisions, how much a food item costs or how much information is available about how it was grown or raised, 45% of total survey respondents chose information, and 55% chose cost. That is significant."

To some extent, the findings could suggest a broader level of mistrust among the population in general as opposed to an issue with the agriculture industry in specific. Only 38% of respondents said they trust the government to do what is right, only 33% said they felt that the media "gets their facts straight" and roughly 49% said conventional agriculture is on the wrong track.

Because food is a personal issue for many consumers, USFRA said the fundamental concern eroding consumer perceptions of agriculture is the long-term health effects of food.

The results found that consumers were most concerned about long-term health issues such as cancer, obesity and diabetes and that anything deemed "not natural" — including antibiotics, hormones and genetically modified organisms — was considered a threat to consumers' long-term health.

Perhaps most important for a science-based community such as agriculture, USFRA said arguments based on science and logic do not help advance a dialogue because of the personal/emotional nature of the discussion.

According to the group's survey, food transparency is very important to consumers, with 59% of respondents saying that it is extremely important for grocery stores and restaurants to provide information about the way the food they sell is grown and raised (rating it at 8-10 on a 10-point scale). More than 50% said they want more information than they are currently getting.

Not only is the statistic significant, but the desire for increased transparency is not going away anytime soon. In fact, the research found that younger shoppers (ages 21-29) are more likely to purchase one food item over another based on which item includes more information about its origin.

Also, the findings show that most consumers do not believe they are currently provided with enough information about food when making purchasing decisions: 56% said they want more information from grocery stores, and 65% said they want more information from chain restaurants (Table).



What is transparency, exactly?

"It's not about telling consumers EVERYTHING," the USFRA research summary concluded. "It's about telling them something, and all food has an important and positive story to tell."

USFRA, a coalition of agricultural policy organizations and commodity research and promotion boards (checkoff programs, in other words), offered some examples of how to advance a positive dialogue using what it calls "Transparency 2.0," including suggestions to focus on providing more information to consumers and taking advantage of opportunities to deliver information about how food is grown and raised across the supply chain.

"The call for transparency from the American consumer is real," said Katie Pratt, an Illinois farmer and one of USFRA's Faces of Farming & Ranching. "However, as an agriculture community, we have the tools, the real-life experiences and the stories to share with those who purchase the food we grow and raise, and we can continue to increase consumer confidence in our great systems of American agriculture."

Pratt, Stallman and others are encouraging farmers and food marketers to improve their communication with consumers in an effort to build trust by moving away from the agriculture industry's typical messages such as "safe, affordable and abundant," which no longer resonate with the consuming public. Acknowledging consumer concerns, focusing on continuous improvement and sharing personal stories and concrete examples are all ingredients in that recipe.

While improving messaging and using different communications tactics may not be a "silver bullet" for agriculture in its quest to reconnect with consumers, the research suggests that they are a big step in the right direction.


Transparency is real concern

Most consumers say they need more information:











I have MORE information than I want




I have about the RIGHT AMOUNT of information




I have LESS information than I want




Source: U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance.


Volume:85 Issue:52

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