Trust In The Produce Department: How Fruits and Veggies Stack Up In The Consumer Trust Stakes — In Produce We Trust

Trust In The Produce Department: How Fruits and Veggies Stack Up In The Consumer Trust Stakes

By Emily Lohfink, Signal Theory

July 2019 – In the latest FoodThink study from Signal Theory,  fresh fruits and vegetables were revealed to be the foods consumers trust more than any other grocery category, with 49 percent of consumers saying they believe them to be very trustworthy, and just 8 percent regarding them as not trustworthy.1  The experts at Signal Theory have identified three possible reasons for consumers’ unrelenting trust in their produce department.

  1. Produce Aligns With What’s Most Important to Consumers

Fruits and vegetables have long been among the first recommendations to those who want to eat healthily. So with 64% of consumers trying to eat healthier than five years ago,1 it makes sense that they would look to the produce department for help in their quest.

Similarly, 63% of consumers are trying to eat fewer processed and more fresh foods than five years ago, and 61% are trying to cook more meals at home than five years ago.1 As the basis for almost any made-from-scratch meal, fruits and veggies are likely to be the first items on the list.

Consumers also said that fresh and healthy are the most important claims they want to see from their food.1

In short, produce appears to fulfill the first of the four main building blocks of trust: Purpose. When a product aligns with consumers’ values, it is seen as purposeful and, therefore, trustworthy.

  1. Produce Brands are Seen as Competent Brands

Another of the key building blocks of trust, Competency, is the foundation on which all consumer trust is built.

When looking at brands in the produce department that consumers said they trust, reasons included how long the brands had been in business, the quality of their products and their freshness.1 These are all examples of competency.

“I trust [them] because I’ve never purchased a bad product from them.”

“Good quality and reliable.”

“They pick their fruits and vegetables at the right time of the season so they always taste fresh.”

With so much faith in their ability to consistently produce fresh, quality food, fruit and vegetable brands and products are in prime position to move their consumers along the spectrum of trust.

  1. Produce’s Transparency Has Been Tested and Has Impressed.

Consumers told Signal Theory that when building trust, Transparency (another key building block of trust) is the most important thing. In fact, 73% said “being transparent and not trying to hide information” is extremely or very important in helping them decide if a food brand is trustworthy. Consumers said this was extremely or very important more than any other factor.1

The produce category’s demonstration of transparency into its practices, and knowledge has recently been a saving grace. When E. coli outbreaks in 2018 were suspected to be linked to Romaine lettuce, information about what was known and what wasn’t was quickly shared with the public, thanks to retailers, producers and the Food and Drug Administration. Each showed tremendous transparency while attempting to trace back the E. coli to its original source.

Seth Gunderson of Signal Theory suggests that an additional driver of trust in these situations was the swift acknowledgment of the issue at a local level, even by those not affected:

“Word got out very fast about the issue and that stores were in compliance immediately. Additionally, it seemed that stores not affected also posted notices to help increase awareness.”

What Can Other Categories Learn From Produce?

Produce is proof that even when the unthinkable happens, not all hope is lost. A recent study by Category Partners revealed almost half of consumers (48%) will revert to buying produce that has been recalled within one week. Only 4% would never buy it again.2

But while it’s true produce has inherent traits that are likely to contribute to trust, the category cannot rely on these alone. Trust still needs to be earned. Likewise, trust should not only be considered in reaction to negative events. Brands should continually invest in developing trust so that when issues — such as recalls – occur, even a high-risk category can withstand setbacks.

If brands commit to establishing — and actively practicing — purpose, competency and transparency, trust can be regained or even grown amid disaster. Then the question begins to shift from “How can we get them to trust us again?” to “Let’s remind them why they trust us.”


  1. FoodThink from Signal Theory, 2018
  2. Category Partners, 2019

Emily Lohfink is a marketing manager at Signal Theory in Wichita, KS, where she manages the agency’s FoodThink initiative. FoodThink is a proprietary research study of America’s relationship with the food value chain.



In Produce We Trust

By Jim Prevor, Editor-in-Chief, Produce Business

Trust is an unusual word to apply to a food. One can trust a person — to tell the truth … to not harm you … to come to your aide in a moment of need — but how can you trust a Diet Coke? One supposes that one has to believe some attribute, so one can trust an orange or orange juice to be rich in Vitamin C or a banana or kiwi to give you Potassium or Diet Coke to be calorie-free.

As products, fruits and vegetables logically are trusted by consumers more than many products. For one thing, they are not complex. An apple is an apple, whereas a processed product — say a muffin — could have any number of things in it. Second, most produce in the U.S. is sold in bulk form or in transparent packaging. So, a consumer can “trust but verify,” to turn a phrase. In contrast, a canned or packaged item requires a blind faith about the contents of the can or package — which, of course, is why brands matter so much more in packaged goods than in produce. Third, from an early age, we are told we should eat our fruits and vegetables — a parental message reinforced by teachers, public health authorities and the media throughout our lives — so trust in fruits and vegetables does not depend on messaging from producers.

Beyond the product itself, there might be trust in the producers as a class. In other words, trust in farmers is higher than producers of most other foods and products. Factory owners are not as trusted as farmers are. This is why every time the produce industry wants to communicate to consumers, we make sure we are represented by someone in jeans, even if the farmer actually has an MBA from Harvard.

The issue of competency is part of this. When we have tried to research the meaning of “local” to consumers, we often find that consumers really are not talking about geographical proximity. They often talk of locale, the idea that things should be grown where it is “right” to grow them, and this includes growing things where the farmers have a long tradition of growing a particular product and so are perceived as competent to do so.

In analyzing the brand research Ms. Lohfink references, how can it be that branded produce is perceived as “fresher” than non-branded? Indeed, most of the research on branded produce has shown that most of the brands function to reinforce trust. After all, the existence of a brand indicates that someone stands behind the product, which is an important consideration in an age of food safety concerns.

Yet, it is also true that because most produce is a parity product, it is harder for brand preference in produce to impact a consumer choice of shopping venue. In contrast, because, say, mustards or frozen meatballs have different flavor profiles, a consumer may well select a store or avoid a store because it carries or does not carry the preferred product.

It is certainly better that the produce industry be open and honest when there are food safety or other issues. The alternative — being perceived as sneaky and trying to hide things — obviously does not contribute to building trust. Yet, we wonder if consumers are able to absorb, or are interested in absorbing, all the information that the FDA or CDC may distribute in a crisis.

The industry also has had quite different experiences regarding consumer hesitation to buy. As simple a thing as a poor-tasting piece of fruit can dissuade consumers from buying for six weeks or longer, and a full recovery from major food safety outbreaks can take years. Indeed, sometimes what the consumer thinks long term may not matter. In the short term, foodservice may adjust recipes, or fresh-cuts at retail can develop new blend combinations. So, long after consumers may have forgotten about the food safety problem, consumption patterns remain altered because product mix offerings changed as a result of the crisis.

One issue about trust today is that it often revolves around metrics that are invisible to the naked eye and beyond our sense of smell and sight. Questions such as if employees are being treated well … is the product grown in an environmentally friendly manner? … does the company support its community? … all these are difficult to ascertain. So, some producers rely on third-party certifications, such as the Rainforest Alliance, and others rely on the power of their own brand. One reason private-label is so powerful is because there is a trust relationship with a grocer that consumers interact with every week. The trust is often stronger than with a shipper of one product, which may not even be available year-round.

It is very likely that trust will be much more important for the produce industry in the future than it has in the past. We have always been able to have consumers visually inspect produce in the stores but with the growth of online, verbal ordering via Alexa, etc., and delivery or pick up ­— the ordering decision is increasingly being made blind. Getting people to order without that visual inspection is an act of trust, indeed.