Greater trust needs to be built between consumers and the food sector to ensure public confidence, according to a study.

Researchers at Flinders University in Australia spent five years working with industry and regulators on a model that could help rebuild or maintain consumer trust in the food system during and following an incident.

However, a recent study found most consumers aren’t aware that a system exists, and they remain skeptical about whether such action would be implemented effectively after an incident.

Concerns over food safety after the needle in strawberries tampering scandal in Australia last year created a lingering lack of trust between consumers and the food industry.

Researchers designed a food security response model with regulators, the media and industry representatives and published results in 2016.

Recent work gauged consumer responses to this model. Results show greater trust needs to be built between consumers and food providers if public confidence is to be ensured about the application of adequate safety measures and transparency on the authenticity of the food.

The study, to be published in the July edition of Food Control, reveals timely transparency is a key strategy for consumer trust during a food incident and consumers are pessimistic regarding the sectors ability to implement strategies.

The model lists 10 strategies that match consumer views about what is required to rebuild or maintain public trust in the food supply after a safety scare. If the industry can apply the model in the event of an incident, data suggests the strategies will assist them in building and/or maintaining consumer trust.

Dr. Emma Tonkin, from the Southgate Institute for Health Society and Equity at Flinders University, said the challenge is to more effectively promote existence and application of the model.

“The main point of this model is achieving transparency, to provide clear information about what procedures are in place to counter confusion and misinformation during a food safety incident. Consumers involved in our study agree that industry should do what our model suggests – but many people don’t believe it occurs.”

Dr. Tonkin said a trust gap exists currently.

“Our research suggests that consumers may question whether the industry is being compliant with the model strategies, and a lack of acceptance or belief by consumers that strategies like full transparency would be acted on,” she said.

“Because consumers mostly don’t know that protocols exist for managing a food scare or scandal, but report that they would feel safer if they did, industry and regulators need to work harder at getting the message across.”

The research team’s next goal is to learn how extensively the recommended model is being applied across the industry.

“There is a lot of adversarial talk between consumers and the food industry, but by using an effective model that has transparent communication at its core, we believe a lot of positive outcomes and progress in food security can be made,” said Dr. Tonkin.


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