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Trust, transparency and what consumers really think about the dairy industry

Progressive Dairyman Editor Peggy Coffeen Published on 16 December 2016

At the 2016 Vita Plus Dairy Summit, attendees heard straight talk from a panel of consumers on where and what they buy and what drives their food purchasing decisions, and they learned about building trust and operating with transparency from Charlie Arnot with the Center for Food Integrity and Andrea Bloom from Vita Plus.

What do consumers really think?

Four Michigan residents – one man and three women – who buy the groceries for their homes served on the panel facilitated by Arnot. Here is what they had to say:

  • When asked about rBST, no one had heard of it or seen it on a label.
  • Some looked for the word “GMO” on food labels, while others did not, but no one had an accurate definition for it.
  • Nutrition and price were consistent food purchase drivers; packaging and labels like “organic” were considerations for some.
  • No one could define the difference between “natural” and “organic,” but all agreed that it sounds good and makes them feel good to purchase those food items.
  • Milk, cottage cheese and cheese were staple dairy products consumed by all panelists.
  • The current sources they seek for information on food nutrition or production includes social media and online sources.
  • Their image of a farmer included overalls or jeans and boots, a John Deere hat and a pickup truck.

Arnot turned the table and inquired what the panelists would like to know if given a chance to ask a dairy farmer one question. Responses included:

  • How do you get everything done?
  • How healthy are dairy products?
  • Do you eat the produce you grow?
  • Why is your product healthy; how do you feed and raise your animals?

What does it take to build trust?

The consumers’ thoughts, opinions and questions underscored Arnot’s key messages. In today’s world, the evening news is no longer the go-to source for information. Today’s consumers are “crowd-sourcing their knowledge” through blogs and online resources and communities. People question the honesty and integrity of institutions like government and industry that have faced public scandals. As food production becomes industrialized, the public sees “us” in agriculture as an institution too, thus questioning our trust.

However, building trust with consumers involves more than just regurgitating facts and science to justify production methods; it involves connecting upon common values. “Shared values drive trust in a much bigger way than any data, any facts we can share,” Arnot said.

Why does transparency matter?

Communicating those shared values is essential for farms to maintain their “social license” to operate, and we have work to do. Results from a survey shared by Arnot showed that consumers believe large farms are more likely to put their interests ahead of the public interest. The solution he offers is to be both forthcoming and honest in addressing our interests and acknowledging mistakes.

“The only thing that can help the bias against size is transparency,” Arnot emphasized. “Transparency is no longer optional; it’s a basic consumer expectation for the entire food system.”

Bloom concluded with a few tips on how dairy farms can build trust and be more transparent. This includes responding to consumer questions with statements that transmit both credibility and warmth. For example, if the question is about whether or not a dairy uses antibiotics, a highly credible and warm response would be, “I genuinely care about my animals and want them to be as healthy as possible.”

Building trust and being transparent can start today, Bloom explained. It starts with keeping farms clean for the roadside view and taking responsibility for manure or mud on the road during times of field work; it also means opening up the farm for tours and making every conversation in the local community count.

Arnot underscored the importance of actively showing the public agriculture has nothing to hide. “These are things we must do to demonstrate to the public that we really are trustworthy.”  end mark

Peggy Coffeen
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