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Building trust from producer to consumer

The majority of consumers is reasonable, intelligent people — especially if their questions are answered with transparency, patience and respect

People often link a distrust of the food industry on the lengthening of the food chain, the growing distance between production and consumption. For some, the perception is that when everyone knew personally the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker they had greater confidence in the safety of their food. Yet history shows that even in those days mistrust arose.

In two 18th century pamphlets titled, Poison Detected (Anonymous) and The Nature of Bread Honestly and Dishonestly Made (James Manning, MD), the authors claimed to have evidence that lime, chalk, alum, borax and even ground bones were added to whiten flour. Advocates of the milling and baking industries wrote articles and books denying this. However, where there is money to be made, there is always at least one opportunist whose dishonest actions may have given rise to these allegations.

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In fact, historical records as far back as ancient Egypt show some bakers did cheat the public by either selling a “light loaf” or by adding impurities such as ground sand to make the regulated selling weight. These additions would not be as noticeable back when flour was dark and coarse, and small amounts of grit could plausibly enter the milling process while done in open-air settings.

As bread was a primary food source for the masses in many societies, regulations were strict and infractions were not treated lightly. Penalties included nailing the Egyptian baker’s ear to the door of his business. Offenders in Babylon risked having a hand cut off. Today, Canadian bakers face fines, and possible closure for repeated offences, but are allowed to keep their appendages.

Doubts about our current food supply stem less from such clear violation of the rules than they do from false or misleading information. Some businesses use this murkiness to their benefit. It’s not only about who puts what in your chicken and burgers.

You might not consider Vani Hari to be a business, but she and her kind profit through sensational misinformation. She has even branded herself for better recognition. You might be more familiar with her alias: The Food Babe. Her online credits include food activist, author and affiliate marketer.

An affiliate marketer earns a commission by promoting others’ products. As people become more aware of her income streams, the public will realize she is less consumer advocate than clever entrepreneur, and her trust rating will fall.

The conspiracy theorists who slavishly follow bloggers like Hari are never going to be won over. Defending your position to them — or worse yet, attacking them — is time poorly spent. The majority of consumers is reasonable, intelligent people — especially if their questions are answered with transparency, patience and respect. Unlike the usual definition of a lack of quality and/or quantity of food, food insecurity for the average Canadian shopper seems to result from a lack of control in the whole operation. People want to know where their food comes from and how it is processed. They want a relationship with the suppliers. Only in relationship can trust be gained.

There are several studies outlining how to build trust. Basically, the consumer must believe that the producer: is acting in the consumer’s interest, is honest, has the necessary expertise, has a value system and views that are, if not completely compatible, then at least not in conflict with their own

These are the traits producers need. Whether originating from large-scale companies or small, local farmers, most of our crops and livestock will be sold to larger corporations who will convert these to the finished products found in shoppers’ carts and on diners’ plates. It is to everyone’s benefit that all producers, big and small, from start to finish, learn how to build trust and forge mutually beneficial relationships with today’s consumers.

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