Public trust starts with conversation, says food industry

How to start talking to consumers is the key question for Canadian companies and farmers

The companies that make up the food supply chain — everyone from farm supply companies to processors and retailers — want and need to build public trust and credibility.

Farmers need to be a central part of that effort, a number of speakers told the annual meeting of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture. Chantelle Donohue, Cargill vice-president of corporate affairs, said building trust with consumers is of vital importance.

Chantelle Donohoe

Chantelle Donohoe
photo: Supplied

“Industry has the privilege of operating with minimal restrictions because it enjoys sufficient public trust,” Donohue said.

However, many issues have gained attention, in the media and through online platforms, that could lead to restrictions on the food industry if it doesn’t address the concerns, she added. They include GMOs, sustainability, treatment of animals, the use of antibiotics and pesticides.

The issue facing the food chain is how to start the discussion with consumers about these topics, she said.

“During the next few months there will be a lot of discussion within the industry on how to bring this about,” she said.

Rory McAlpine, senior vice-president of corporate affairs and communication at Maple Leaf Foods, said conducting a conversation with consumers will receive a boost in May with the launch of The Canadian Centre for Food Integrity. It’s being set up by Farm and Food Care Canada.

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A two-day public trust summit is planned for May 31 and June 1, which will include the start of the Canadian public trust research project which will attempt to determine what Canadians think about food and farming. It will include speakers from the United Kingdom and the United States.

The group will be open for membership food companies and food- and farm-related organizations.

McAlpine said reaching out to consumers will help by addressing society and environmental issues and be of value to business by helping create profitable growth and long-term business competitiveness.

An example he cited was reducing food waste because it is good for the environment and lowers a company’s food costs. Maple Leaf will soon release its second sustainability report on how it’s progressing in terms of reducing its environment footprint and responding to consumers, he said.

Some factors food companies have to take into account is Canadians consume twice the daily recommended level of salt and one in four adults is obese. As well, more than nine million Canadians are diabetic or pre-diabetic. At the same time, 60 per cent of shoppers try to avoid products with artificial ingredients.

Animal welfare has become a high-profile issue and more than 70 per cent of the population believes large commercial farms ignore consumer interests, he added.

Bob Chant, senior vice-president of corporate affairs and communication with the Loblaw grocery chain, said consumer trust in government and business is waning. However, polls show the situation can be turned around if a company “takes specific actions that both increase profits and improve the economic and social conditions in the community where it operates.”

Loblaw has found feedback from its customers on its grocery offerings showed 53 per cent wanted more local sourcing, 49 per cent were looking for healthier food choices while 41 per cent desired less food waste and 40 per cent were concerned with animal welfare.

In response, Loblaw is committed to delivering on that promise by providing safe sustainable products that follow the company’s “Canadian first” principles.

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