Charlie Arnot is the CEO of the Center for Food Integrity, a nonprofit dedicated to building consumer trust and confidence in the U.S. food system. Even after decades of industry reform and regulation, that is no small task. As of Aug. 14, the U.S. Department of Agriculture had issued 70 food-related recalls, withdrawing hundreds of thousands of pounds of food from the market. “We’ve somehow accepted a certain level of risk with food that we would not accept in other industries,” Arnot said. Trust in the companies that serve our most elemental need-food-is critical for consumers and industry alike, and requires constant work. Arnot sat down with Risk Management to discuss the impact of food safety on the entire food industry, and shared some insight on the best practices that allow companies in any industry to build, maintain and regain trust.
RM: Aside from recalls, what are the biggest threats posed by food safety?
Arnot: Food safety is kind of the Holy Grail when it comes to food trust. Anything that is a threat to food safety becomes a threat to institutional reputation. We’re fortunate in the United States that most people still assume food is safe. When you do qualitative research in focus groups and ask open-ended questions, rarely do people mention food safety. Any violation of that cultural assumption becomes very, very damaging.
RM: What is the most effective way to recover when consumer trust is broken?
Arnot: Accept responsibility, apologize and increase your transparency. That’s the key. You also have to accept that your constituents will be skeptical about your activities and your motives for an extended period of time. One of the challenges we have is that, when something happens, we tend to not want to talk about it. We also tend to become defensive. All of those work against us.
RM: How does food fraud, specifically, impact the food industry overall?
Arnot: Food fraud is a growing problem. I think that, as consumer awareness grows about food fraud, it will be devastating for consumer confidence. People assume that either their store or the brand or somebody is providing a level of assurance that you’re getting the product that you’re buying. Now, the chain has become longer and more complex, and that increases the level of skepticism. You have even more steps in the process that you have to have some confidence in.
RM: What are some ways that companies can better build and maintain trust with consumers?
Arnot: The first thing is to understand that who you are is as important as what you know. You have got to be able to communicate not just data, but your authentic commitment to producing safe food, talk about your values, and talk about the things that give people the opportunity to connect to you, not just your information. That will make your information much more relevant and meaningful.
Second, remember that people want information from academics, but they don’t want academic information. We have got to be able to translate Ph.D. to ADD. How do you learn to speak the language of social media? Can you talk about what you’re doing in 140 characters, or can you talk about it in a way that you know is very accessible to consumers?
Occasionally I will hear from experts that they don’t want to dumb down the science. You’re not dumbing it down-you’re making it accessible. If you can’t translate it in a way that is meaningful to the audience, it has no value at all. That is the third thing: you have to know that it is not about dumbing it down, it is about making it accessible and relevant to your audience.
RM: Who are the best messengers for that information?
Arnot: That goes back to sharing the values, having the credentials (and not a conflict of interest), and being an expert who can connect and share information in a meaningful way. It is really complex-for you, that is going to be different than it is going to be for somebody else. You’re going to look to somebody that you view as credible, somebody that you view as having your interests at heart, and someone who can communicate in a meaningful way with you. I’m a white guy over 50-who I look to is going to be different than who a mom or millennial might look to for specific information. So, it’s a matter of finding people who can connect with a variety of audiences.
RM: When should companies be interacting with consumers on social media?
Arnot: Commit to engaging early, often, and consistently. We’re going to have this ongoing conversation about food for at least a generation as people become increasingly skeptical and more concerned about what they’re eating and where it comes from. How are you, as a risk manager or food safety professional, going to engage in that conversation? How are you going to engage in that broader social conversation about food and what commitment are you willing to make? There’s no silver bullet and no single solution. But, if everyone chooses to engage, we can continue to increase our impact.
RM: What are the pitfalls of social media?
Arnot: It’s a mosh pit. Everybody has equal access and has the opportunity to have his or her opinion and voice heard in that social conversation. Particularly for scientists and researchers, one of the challenges is figuring out how to engage when there is a lot of inaccurate, unscientific, unvalidated information being shared. We need people to be involved in that conversation and not to opt-out because it’s not a technical conversation. But we need technical information inserted into that conversation in a way that will be well-received.