On the one hand, conceiving of a day when consumers turn their noses up at beef due to economics or ethics, or because beef production is banned outright, seems akin to contemplating a day when the sky is no longer blue.

On the other hand, the same was said not long ago about pocket-knives being prohibited from schools, public smoking bans, or being forced by the government to buy health insurance.

Agree or not, society decides what’s acceptable — whether or not facts support the decision.

Lean finely textured beef (LFTB) comes to mind. For years, it was used to churn out ground beef for less cost than was otherwise possible. But take one TV show with a celebrity chef who is ignorant of the facts and, poof, the Internet lit up like a Christmas tree. The result was that consumers believed LFTB was an artificial ingredient and balked at the unsavory images.

By and large, the industry responded with sound science and the long history of LFTB safety. But, no dice. Within a couple of weeks, stores quit carrying ground beef made with LFTB, and the primary LFTB supplier went bankrupt, putting hundreds of folks out of work. The subsequent lawsuit is now trudging its way through court.

Shared values vs. competence

“Historically when under pressure to change, the industry has responded by attacking the attackers and using science alone to justify current practices,” say authors of the recent research paper “2013 Consumer Trust in the Food System.”

“Too frequently, the industry confuses scientific verification with ethical justification. Not only are these approaches ineffective in building stakeholder trust and support, they increase suspicion and skepticism that the food industry is worthy of public trust,” the paper concludes.

The research was conducted by The Center for Food Integrity (CFI), a not-for-profit organization established to build consumer trust and confidence in today’s food system. CFI members represent every segment of the food system.

In a November webinar focusing on that research, Charlie Arnot, CEO of CFI, explained that consumer skepticism of institutions began in 1968. That was the year Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, and protests roiled the country in opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Within a few years, came the Kent State shootings and the Watergate scandal.

Prior to 1968, Arnot says authority was granted by office. Since then, authority is granted by relationship. Before 1968, there was broad social consensus and a common voice achieved through mass communication. Now, he explains, there are masses of communicators, divergent voices and no single consensus.

Since 1968, Arnot says industry consolidation and concentration have also increased consumer perceptions that food production is institutional. It’s big business vs. mom and pop.

“Whether farms or food companies, consumers are increasingly skeptical that large organizations are worthy of trust,” Arnot says. “Consumers believe mass production creates more opportunity for error, that industrialized food production is inherently impersonal and that big companies will put profits ahead of public interest.”

 

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In other words, there is an inverse relationship between size and the perception of shared values, which matter more than they ever have.

Based on their previous research, CFI researchers explain, “Confidence (shared values) is 3-5 times more important than demonstrating competency (skills and knowledge) in building trust.”

That’s especially true of the millennial generation, the progeny of baby boomers generally born between 1980 and 2000. This generation includes 76 million Americans, of whom 40% are African American, Latino, Asian or racially mixed. Most of them don’t remember a time without the Internet.

According to CFI research, these folks view money, fame and image as important life goals. They rate community issues as less important to them than the previous two generations.

They are the least concerned of those surveyed by CFI about having enough food to feed people outside the U.S.