No one is immune from a food safety crisis and its ripple effects on consumers, stakeholders and hard-earned reputations. Maybe you’re fortunate and it’s been smooth sailing so far. But be prepared. A crisis – whether big or small – is in your future and earning trust is critical to successfully managing the fallout.

The key is to establish trust long before a crisis strikes so the public, customers, suppliers, investors and regulators know you as reputable and ethical, and a company that will make the right decisions when things go wrong.

Trust allows you to more effectively weather the storm and rebuild, and research from The Center for Food Integrity (CFI) shows that transparency earns that trust.

Transparency is no longer optional, it’s a basic consumer expectation, according to our research. The biggest takeaway is that transparency can help overcome the “Big is Bad” bias.

It’s no secret that consumers don’t trust ‘Big Food,” in part, because they feel large companies will put profit ahead of their best interest every time. And when it comes to a food safety crisis, the bigger the company the bigger the public impact.

This “Big is Bad” attitude is echoed in recent CFI interviews that asked consumers, “Do you trust food companies?” and “Do you think food companies are transparent?” Among the comments:

“I’m not sure the bigger food companies are going over the top to make sure people know everything that’s happened in the growth of the product they’re selling or in the processing of the product.”

“I trust food companies to do what it takes to deliver quarterly profits. I don’t trust them to make food that’s good for us.”

“I think it’s all profit driven. I’ve been reading labels for years and there’s always bad stuff hidden in it.”

Can you convert the skeptics? CFI research shows that the following three steps will go a long way toward solidifying your reputation as a company that’s worthy of their trust.

Show and Tell
What matters most to consumers is seeing a company’s practices – demonstrating through videos, blogs, presentations, advertising and promotion how food is produced, what’s in it, who’s producing it and how it impacts their health.

In our recent interviews, when asked how food companies can be more transparent, several respondents mentioned videos that show how their food got to their plate. The impact is reflected in the following response:

“You have to earn someone’s trust and if a food company wants me to trust them, they have to show me what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.”

Consumers simply want to know that you share their values when it comes to topics like safe food, quality animal care and environmental stewardship. Practices are an illustration of a company’s values in action – and values build trust. In fact, the CFI peer-reviewed and published trust model shows that communicating shared values is three-to-five times more important to earning trust than simply sharing facts or demonstrating expertise.

Consumers want the ability to engage, be heard and acknowledged, and get their questions answered promptly and in easy-to-understand language. More companies are doing a better job of providing consumers access to experts and answers, and it’s paying off.

The public feels more empowered than ever, according to survey results. Forty-percent strongly agree with the statement:

“I have access to all of the information I want about where my food comes from, how it’s produced and its safety.”

That’s up from 28 percent in the previous year and up substantially from 2007 when the statement was first posed. While there’s still work to do, the food industry clearly is headed in the right direction.

Demonstrate third-party verification
If it applies, feature third-party verification or audit information in your outreach. This demonstrates that you’re actually following through with your practices. Consumers feel a higher level of comfort knowing that a credible, objective third-party confirms your practices – especially when it comes to the issues of food safety and animal well being.

Surprisingly, the research revealed that consumers hold food companies – not farmers – most responsible for transparency when it comes to animal well-being and the environment.

Even though our food system has never been safer, expectations regarding safe food and the need for credible, accessible information are growing.

Consumers not only expect transparency, they deserve it. And the trust that’s earned as a result of an ongoing commitment to transparency will provide food companies the foundation for continued success in times of calm – and crisis.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)