A Clear View Of Transparency And How It Builds Trust

By Charlie Arnot, Ceo, The Center For Food Integrity

If you increase transparency, you will increase trust. The Center for Food Integrity’s (CFI) latest consumer trust study provides the statistical data to prove it.

Research conducted in 2015 was the culmination of three years of work on the concept of increasing food system transparency. Consumers are asking for greater transparency and varying attempts were made to define it. CFI’s research not only defines the concept but provides a clear path to effectively address growing skepticism about food.

In a nationwide online survey of 2,000 people, CFI’s 2015 study explored transparency as it pertains to:

  • Impact of Food on Health
  • Food Safety
  • Environmental Impact
  • Labor and Human Rights
  • Animal Well-Being
  • Business Ethics in Food Production

To identify the practices consumers associate with demonstrating trust-building transparency, survey participants were asked to rate a list of practices in each area. Here are some highlights:

Impact of Food on Health and Food Safety – Consumers rate these two categories as the most important. For these issues, they want information on the product label. That includes all ingredients regardless of quantity, allergens, preservatives and whether ingredients were derived from GMO seed. For other issues, engagement and access to information are key themes. Consumers want to be able to engage via the company’s website, and they expect information to be provided in easy-to-
understand language.

Environmental Impact – Consumers want the opportunity to ask questions about environmental performance via the company website, and they want answers provided in simple language. When regulations are violated, corrective actions should be provided on the company website.

Labor and Human Rights – Consumers want the opportunity to ask questions about labor practices and human rights via the company website, and they want answers provided in easy-to-understand language.

Animal Well-Being – Results of third-party audits on animal care should be shared on the company website. Consumers want the opportunity to ask questions via the company website and they want answers provided in simple language.

Business Ethics – Consumers want companies to accept responsibility on the company website for all business activity. They also expect whistleblowers to be protected.

Consumers were also asked who they hold most responsible for demonstrating trust-building transparency. The study shows consumers look to food manufacturers to provide transparency in all aspects of food production — whether it’s safety, impact on health, or on-farm animal care. Farmers were second in all aspects and nearly tied, in the  Environmental Impact category.

Some transparency activities are more important to consumers than others. This research provides insight into which activities are most important, which is valuable information for food companies when developing plans to address consumer questions and concern. For example, providing food safety audit results by a third-party verifier is a stronger indicator of transparency than providing cooking instructions on a package.

While the research shows the highest level of consumer concern is associated with the issues of Food Safety and the Impact of Food on Health, this study proves that consumers expect companies to be transparent about all six topics tested. Consumer trust in products, people and brands depend on it.

Transparency Index

Having explored the concept of increased transparency for three years, CFI is developing an index to give companies and organizations the tools needed to effectively demonstrate transparency. A beta test of the index was conducted by Campbell Soup Company, ConAgra Foods, DuPont, Kroger, Monsanto, Phibro Animal Health, Smithfield Foods, The Hershey Company and Tyson Foods.

The beta test results revealed strengths as well as opportunities for companies to better provide information important to consumers. Companies received high marks for providing information about the impact of food on health, food safety, environment and business ethics via company websites. Areas of opportunity include companies’ performance in responding to consumer inquiries and providing information about how they verify practices.

Demonstrating Transparency

Merely making policies available to the public isn’t enough, as they only articulate motivation. When it comes to transparency that actually increases trust, sharing specific practices was most predictive of trust in five of the six areas. Providing consumers concrete examples of practices by actually showing and talking about what you do is key to being transparent.

Practices are also a reflection of a company’s internal motivation and a demonstration of a company’s values in action. And, as scientifically proven in CFI’s trust model in 2006, shared values are three to five times more important than sharing facts or demonstrating expertise when it comes to building trust.