Earning trust in our food system

An interview with Terry Fleck, Executive DirectorThe Center for Food Integrity

Terry Fleck, executive director of CFI since 2007, brings a wealth of experience to CFI from local, state, national and international levels in association leadership, public relations, sales, international development and diplomacy, and policy. Terry enjoys association work because it’s about people, principle and improving the common good. He enjoys serving others while building trust—making a difference that lasts.

We sat down and asked Terry about the work being done by the CFI and how agri-food can play a constructive role in continuing to earn public trust.

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1. What is the mission of the Center for Food Integrity?

The mission of CFI is to help food and agriculture earn consumer trust. We’re a not-for-profit based in Gladstone, Missouri, and last year expanded north with the launch of the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity.

CFI’s members represent a diversity of today’s food system – from farmers and food companies to universities, NGOs, restaurants, retailers and food processors. Our goal isn’t supporting a certain outcome; we don’t lobby or advocate on behalf of any brand or company or food production method. We simply want to make sure consumers have the balanced information they need about food to make informed choices that are right for them and their families.

2. Consumers want more information than ever before on how their food was grown, raised or produced. How can the agri-food industry best respond to consumer scrutiny?

The best approach is to engage with consumers, consistently and authentically. Today’s consumers expect – and deserve – transparency. They want to be heard and they want straight answers. We’re excited about the dramatic shifts food and agriculture are making on this front – whether that’s committing to engaging on social channels about on-farm practices or launching campaigns about product ingredients and sourcing. The food system understands it’s a new environment and they’re stepping up to meet the challenge.

3. What are the cornerstones of earning trust with consumers?

Traditionally, food and ag have relied on communicating facts and science when engaging consumers. But our peer-reviewed and published CFI trust model demonstrates that communicating with shared values is three-to-five times more important to earning trust than simply sharing facts and science, or demonstrating skills and expertise. In other words, consumers want to know that what’s important to them is important to you, too, when it comes to issues like food safety, animal care and environmental stewardship. A “big is bad” bias among consumers certainly exists and the perception is that “big ag” and “big food” will put profit ahead of public interest. Our research shows that the shared values approach helps bridge that gap.

4. We hear about the rise of new “influencers” in the food world. Who are they and why is it important for agriculture to connect with them?

In partnership with digital ethnography pioneers MotivIndex, we identified five Consumer Types in our latest research, giving us a whole new level of insight. We now understand who the influencers are, how and where they connect online, emerging trends, trusted brands, and sources and channels they use to shape their beliefs and opinions about food and agriculture.

We can now identify who and what are changing consumer beliefs, attitudes and behaviors – understanding why ideas move into or out of the marketplace. In turn, that allows us to identify where our values align, and where and how we engage to earn trust.

Each Consumer Type has a unique set of motivations, feelings and actions that are directly tied to whether they feel they are “living well” as it relates to food. We are currently in the midst of a shift in the marketplace where the culture and conversation around conventional food is changing as consumers navigate which foods to adopt, moderate or abandon. We discovered that Peak Performers℠ is one group driving change. To Peak Performers food is all about self-improvement and a critical ingredient to looking good. Other Consumer Types look to Peak Performers for guidance on food choices.

5. What types of research is CFI conducting into food and consumer trends?

Since 2007, we’ve conducted annual research to understand changing consumer attitudes. Our trust model and results of our annual research are the foundation of everything we do. It’s important to understand our audience and how best to engage to earn trust. While certain survey questions are asked year to year to monitor trends, we focus on certain themes each year like transparency and identifying influencers.

Our 2017 research, scheduled for release this fall, will again use digital ethnography to uncover perceptions toward information coming from governments, non-profits, traditional media and  consumers’ personal tribes as it pertains food. This will help us evaluate to what extent consumers are simply looking to reaffirm existing beliefs and the social pressure they feel to conform to the belief of their online community.

6. According to the research, what are some of the top concerns consumers have when it comes to making food and grocery choices?

We’re encouraged that more U.S. consumers than ever before believe the U.S. food system is headed in the right direction – 55 per cent, compared to 40 per cent in the previous year’s research. Twenty-two per cent believe the food system is headed down the wrong track, while 23 per cent are unsure.

Also, consumers are interested in having access to healthy, affordable food. We see that result play out in the trend toward “clean eating.” A majority of respondents expressed concern about GMOs and artificial ingredients in food, and the use of hormones in farm animals.

We’re encouraged that nearly 70 per cent of respondents have a somewhat favorable or favorable view of agriculture and 80 per cent have a very strong desire to learn more about how food is produced. It represents a golden opportunity to engage.

7. How can the agri-food industry get involved with CFI in terms of projects or programs?

We’re proud of our Engage shared-values communications training program. Over the past several years, thousands have participated in Engage, which equips participants with the tools to effectively engage with the public using the power of shared values. Curriculum focuses on one-on-one conversations, social media and media. This year, we launched Engage Online, a self-paced, five-module online training program that has been very well received.

While members have access to the entirety of our annual research, we encourage others to download our research summary and attend our research webinars to learn more about the latest consumer attitudes. Also, in order to meet changing needs within the food system, CFI forms coalitions to focus on important topics. Our latest is the Coalition for Responsible Gene Editing, which is currently in the process of formulating responsible use guidelines. The Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply, which looked at the benefits and trade-offs of various types of hen housing, is another example of the power of partnerships.

There are many benefits of membership and we certainly encourage those in food and ag to reach out for more information. We would be happy to work with any organization to develop a plan to apply our research on trust-earning transparency.

8. Where and how do we follow the CFI conversation on social?

CFI is on Facebook at www.facebook.com/FoodIntegrity/ and Twitter @foodintegrity