Is transparency dead? | Sumfood

Posted in Clean Eater, Consumer, Food Safety, Food Security, Food Systems on Nov 07, 2018

Capturing a consumer’s trust (and, therefore loyalty), is the objective of many a food company’s marketing division; and, to do so, they have bandied around the notion of transparency. We have all heard it (and some of us have uttered it), ‘supply chains must be transparent’. From a superficial perspective it is an easy concept to grasp – if the consumer thinks that we, the food producer, have nothing to hide, they will trust us more. If they trust us, they will purchase from us. Simple market-driven ethics.

Transparency, however, is a far more complex issue than what we currently see in supply chains and it might not be what food producers actually want to do. Full transparency (and anything less is a little like being a little bit pregnant, something is either transparent or it is not) means that the consumer can see everything about our business – including how we pay our people, what the conditions of those who produce raw ingredients are, how we deal with shortage of ingredients, what our current financial situation is (many a food incident has occurred as a result of financial constraints leading to shortcuts being taken by the producer). Transparency may not be what we are actually seeking.

Let’s start by describing what we want. We want consumers to trust us. We want to be able to talk with confidence about our processes and we want people to accept we will act ethically and professionally to produce safe food. In turn, we expect consumers to choose our product over our competitors. And, therein lies the trust paradox - if you have to tell someone to trust you then you are not acting in a trustworthy manner, as trust should be implicitly derived through the observed actions of an individual / organisation.

In response to the void of credible information, we have seen the rise of third-party certifiers – NGOs, private companies, quasi-government agencies who act as endorsers – quantifying for the consumer that the food producer has met a certain standard whether that be organic certification, fair trade, bio-gro etc. In turn, these groups develop standards of conduct, undertake audits of the producer and issue certification of achievement. This could be the system of trust that the consumer seeks, except that these certifying bodies are, generally, paid by the companies they certify. An important component of the trust equation – independence of the certifying body – is missing in the pay-for-service certification industry. This gives rise to the certification paradox – certification agencies need revenue, when that revenue comes from the industry, they are no longer truly independent; when they are dependent upon the industry they certify they can no longer be independent in their assessments. It is important to note that a number of certification bodies have rigorous standards and they would rather reduce revenue than lower their standard, these groups should be applauded but, to be fair, it is often difficult to assess how independent the ‘independent organisation’ is and we have added another layer of obfuscation for the consumer. By way of example, wander the wine aisle at your local supermarket and check out the awards, medals and other stickers attached to the wine bottles – what do they all mean and are they worth the paper they are printed on?

As a consumer who do you trust? In part, the answer to that lies in where you live. Some governments are more credible than others with robust systems for assessment of food producers. If you are lucky enough to reside there (or the food originates from such a country) then you can assume that, unless a recall is issued, the food is safe to consume. That is very different to whether it is safe to trust. The lowest common denominator in the food system is whether something is safe, but, if you are interested in any values-based determinants of production (e.g. free range, organic) then it may not be the domain of the regulator (except where regulations are breached such as labelling laws).

To my mind it would seem that transparency, like respect, is something that is earnt - trying to shortcut the process by instructing the consumer to trust you is only valid if you are, in fact, trustworthy and you do in fact, prove it.

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