Four in 10 consumers have lost trust in food system

Published on: Sep 20, 2013

DESPITE an overall improvement in the public’s perception of farming and agriculture as an industry, roughly one in four consumers surveyed by Oklahoma State University reported losing trust in the food system at some point in the past.

Americans’ views of farming and agriculture showed a marked improvement from a year ago, according to an August survey conducted by The Gallup Organization. The industry was one of seven U.S. sectors that improved substantially this year.

Each year since 2001, Gallup has asked Americans to rate 25 different business sectors and industries on a five-point scale ranging from “very positive” to “very negative,” and calculated the net ratings as the difference between the positive and negative ratings for each industry.

This year’s survey found farming and agriculture to have the third-highest net positive rating at 42, an increase of 10 points from 2012. Only the computer and restaurant industries had higher net positive ratings in this year’s survey.

Breaking out the data, 60% of respondents had a positive feeling toward agriculture, 21% were neutral, and only 18% rated the industry negatively.

Gallup’s findings line up somewhat with the most recent edition of Oklahoma State’s Food Demand Survey (FooDS), conducted monthly by agricultural economist Jayson Lusk. The September survey asked 1,000 respondents if the could “think of a time when you felt that you lost trust in the food system.”

Forty percent said yes.

Lusk followed up with an open-ended question, asking for the specific circumstances that led to a loss of trust, and then analyzed 413 typed responses. The researchers highlighted specific keywords, and divided responses into eight different categories to determine relevant trends in the data.

Among the top keywords mentioned were “GMOs,” with 24 specific mentions.

“Biotechnology seems to be a big contributor to a loss of trust in the food system,” Lusk said. “That said, most of the statements people typed had something to do with food safety issues.”

Indeed, Lusk found 113 responses had something to do with food safety issues including e.coli, avian influenza or bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Another 34 responses were categorized as a “personal experience” issue, most of which Lusk said related stories of food poisoning.

Taken together then, more than 35% of responses could be viewed as food-safety related. By comparison, only 74 responses were categorized as “technology related issues,” with specific topics including GMOs, antibiotic use and lean, finely textured beef.

“When I learned that genetically-engineered foods did not have to be labeled as such,” one respondent said, “I felt very betrayed by the food industry and the FDA.”

Another said, “I used to buy ground beef, but when I heard pink slime, I stopped buying it.”

Food prices, animal welfare issues and general media coverage of agriculture were other categories Lusk defined among the survey’s responses, but each received fewer than 50 mentions.