In what culminated in the third-largest meat recall in U.S. history, the first reports of Salmonella linked to ground turkey began in March 2011. By July, the product had been linked with the Arkansas plant where it was processed. In August, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) formally asked the plant to recall 36 million pounds of ground turkey.

The meat was believed to be linked to 77 Salmonella-related illnesses and one death.

It was the second time in recent months that turkey had been tied to a food safety issue. A few months earlier, 12 people fell ill amid a Salmonella outbreak that prompted the recall of nearly 55,000 pounds of turkey burgers.

Food safety advocate Bill Marler, an attorney who has represented victims of the foodborne illness outbreaks, told CBS News, “Consumers have no idea what to do except not eat ground turkey.”

U.S. Representative Rosa DeLauro, a longtime advocate for stronger food safety laws, wrote USDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), asking why it took so long to announce the recall.

“It is simply unacceptable that after more than 4 months of illnesses and more than 10 weeks of investigation by both the CDC and the USDA, we have so few answers to the obvious questions surrounding this outbreak,” wrote DeLauro.

Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, a longtime promoter of legislation to place limits on the use of antibiotics, issued a statement saying the recall was due to “antibiotic-resistant turkey products.” She asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner for stronger rules covering the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture.

All of this occurred mere weeks after President Barack Obama had signed legislation giving FDA authority to impose new rules to prevent contamination and allowing the agency to order, rather than simply suggest, the recall of tainted foods.

Laying Blame
When a food safety incident requiring a recall occurs, there may be only one source, in this case, the processing plant in Arkansas. But according to Dr. David Acheson, former FDA associate commissioner of foods, the suffering is widespread.

“Damage to an entire industry can be massive,” said Acheson. “We’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars. Data indicate consumption of a commodity can drop 50 percent overnight.”

Food companies lacking the ability to address a food safety concern quickly and efficiently will find themselves with deeper problems.

“It is critical that record-keeping systems are adequate to support what I call a ‘surgical recall’—get minimum product off the shelves at maximum speed,” said Acheson, who is now a food safety consultant. “If you can hold the incident to one press release, it can go almost unnoticed. If you have to expand the recall, it can become a nightmare very quickly.”

Ground beef, onions, spinach, peanuts, peppers and eggs have all in recent years had their turns in the public spotlight due to food safety concerns. There’s no doubt that pressure on the food production system is increasing. With each incident, consumer confidence erodes and the food system’s operating environment becomes more difficult.

Since 2006, the Center for Food Integrity (CFI) has conducted broad-based consumer market research to measure and track attitudes toward the U.S. food system. The findings have consistently shown that the food safety issue trails only the economy, rising health care costs, unemployment, rising energy costs and personal financial situations on a long list of consumer concerns.

CFI’s 2011 study showed that consumers rank safe, affordable and nutritious food as their top priorities (Figure 1).

Consumers are increasingly raising questions about today’s food production and processing practices. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) opposed to today’s production systems are pursuing litigation, pressuring customers and initiating legislation to change the way the food system operates. Customers and consumers are asking questions, as was the case with ground turkey in 2011, about food safety. Sustainability, nutrition, animal well-being and immigration are also issues of increasing consumer concern.

The changing structure of our food system, the increasing influence of global brands, the sophistication and influence of interest groups and the explosion of social networking and new media have created a novel environment requiring the food production system to explore new ways to build consumer trust and protect its freedom to operate. The rational majority needs to be shown that even though the size and scale of today’s highly integrated and tightly coordinated food system has changed, the commitment to do what’s right is stronger than ever.

Today’s food system needs to be redefined to build consumer trust.

Our Changing Structure
Changes taking place in food production over the past 100 years have been remarkable. Technology our grandparents never dreamed possible is commonplace. The adoption of technology and the related increase in efficiency and productivity have resulted in fewer Americans working in food production. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 1900, 36 percent of all U.S. occupations were “agricultural pursuits.” By 1950, 11.6 percent of all U.S. occupations were farmers, farm managers or farm laborers. In 2010, 0.6 percent of the U.S. population was employed in farming, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Consolidation and integration have dramatically impacted every sector of the food system, from the farm to the consumer.

We see the consolidation reflected in the handful of organizations that now control or manage significant segments of the food system. Today,

The top 10 food retailers sell more than 75 percent of food.

The top 10 chicken companies produce 79 percent of the chicken.

The top 50 dairy cooperatives produce 79 percent of the milk.

The top 60 egg companies produce 85 percent of all eggs.

The top 20 pork producers produce more than 50 percent of all pork (2% of pork producers produce 80%).

The top 10 pork packers process 87 percent of all pork.

The top four beef packers process more than 80 percent of all beef.

Increased integration and the use of technology brought with them improved food safety, increased product variety, improved consistency and a reliable and affordable source of nutritious food for consumers. Unfortunately, it also means fewer people are connected to the food system and there is a reduced understanding and appreciation for how food is produced. The result is diminished consumer trust and confidence in today’s food production and a corresponding increase in consumer concern and NGO pressure (Figure 2).

Brands as Agents of Social Change
In today’s dynamic new environment, the link between NGOs, global brands and food production is short and direct. NGOs like Greenpeace, the Center for Food Safety and the Center for Environmental Health are now embracing market-based campaigns as well as legislation and litigation to achieve their objectives.

Kert Davies, director of research for Greenpeace, is quoted as saying that discovering brands was like discovering gunpowder and that Greenpeace attacks the weakest link in a brand’s supply chain. If specific practices in food production are perceived to be a threat to public health, sustainability or environmental integrity, the industry should expect groups to exert market pressure as well as legislation or litigation to change those practices.

Global food companies have invested millions of dollars in building and protecting their brand, and they can ill afford to have the practices of their supply chain put the brand at risk. It is no more the job of McDonald’s or Walmart to defend practices that threaten their brand than it is of the food system to defend those who supply the industry inputs.

At the same time, McDonald’s, Walmart and other companies with global brands have a vested interest in a consistent, safe and affordable food supply produced responsibly. Food producers and processors can help secure the support of customers by working to build consumer trust and understanding of today’s production and processing systems. Research indicates consumers want permission to believe the food they eat is safe and produced in a responsible manner.

Market leaders across the globe are fully aware of the relationship between NGOs, brands and the supply chain, and they work to manage the risk to their brand and their customers.

The food system can build customer support by increasing consumer trust and confidence, and ensuring today’s practices are consistent with the values and expectations of their stakeholders and that robust quality systems are in place and a commitment to food safety is engrained in the company culture.

The Social License to Operate
Every organization, no matter how large or small, operates with some level of social license. Social license (Figure 3) is the privilege of operating with minimal formalized restrictions (e.g., legislation, regulation or market mandate) based on maintaining public trust by doing what’s right. You are granted social license when you operate in a way that is consistent with the ethics, values and expectations of your stakeholders. Your stakeholders include customers, employees, the local community, regulators, legislators and the media.

Once lost, either through a single event or a series of events that reduce or eliminate public trust, social license is replaced with social control. Social control is regulation, legislation, market mandates or litigation designed to compel you to perform to the expectations of your stakeholders. Operating with social license is flexible and low cost. Operating with a high degree of social control increases costs, reduces operational flexibility and increases bureaucratic compliance.

Once public trust is violated, the tipping point is crossed and high-cost bureaucratic regulation or stringent market requirements replace flexible, lower-cost social license. Once social control is in place, it can be modified, but social license is never fully recovered.

The question then becomes, what can be done to maintain public trust that grants the social license and protects freedom to operate?

A New Model for Building Trust
In 2006, CMA (an issues management and communications firm) commissioned a meta-analysis of available research on the question of trust in the food system. Through that analysis, done in partnership with Dr. Stephen Sapp of the Sociology Department at Iowa State University, it was determined that three primary elements drive trust. Those three elements are confidence, competence and influential others (Figure 4[1]).

Confidence is related to perceived shared values and ethics and a belief that an individual or group will do the right thing. Competence is tied to skills, ability and technical capacity. Influential others include family and friends as well as respected, credentialed individuals like doctors and dietitians.

In late 2007, CMA launched a nationwide consumer survey on behalf of CFI to determine the role that confidence, competence and influential others play in creating and maintaining trust. Consumers were specifically asked to rate their level of confidence, competence and trust in various groups of influential others in the food system. Questions were asked about food safety, environmental protection, nutrition, animal well-being and worker care.

The results of the survey were consistent and conclusive.[1] On every single issue, confidence, or shared values, was three to five times more important than competence for consumers in determining whom they trust in the food system. In the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

These results should serve as a call to action for the entire food system. No longer is it sufficient to rely solely on science or to attack those who attack the food system as a means of protecting self-interest. This new environment requires new ways of engaging and new methods of communicating if the food system is to build trust, earn and maintain social license and protect the freedom to operate.

The Global Food Challenge
The food system has an incredible challenge and opportunity ahead. By midcentury, food production must double to feed a total of 9 billion people around the globe. To meet that challenge, the food system must embrace new models of public engagement that build and maintain public trust and the social license to operate. Social license is required to continue to innovate and find ways to produce additional safe, affordable food using fewer natural resources.

Consumers need help in understanding that the industry’s use of technology is consistent with their desire for safe food produced responsibly.

Food industry claims must be verified with objective science and companies also must be able to operate profitably if they are to survive.

Only those systems that maintain a balance of being ethically grounded, scientifically verified and economically viable are truly sustainable (Figure 5). Each side of the sustainability triangle has stakeholders focused on maintaining the strength of that side, even at the expense of maintaining balance. There may be times when stakeholders have to look beyond short-term self-interest to foster sustainability of the system.

Those in the food system need to develop new skills and new models to work effectively in the space where public, private and NGO interests meet on food issues.

If food system practices are not ethically grounded, they will not achieve broad-based societal acceptance and support. If they are not scientifically verified, there is no way to evaluate and validate the claims of sustainability, and if they are not economically viable, they cannot be commercially sustained. For a system to be truly sustainable, it has to be ethically grounded, scientifically verified and economically viable. This model encourages stakeholders to look for balance in an effort to find true sustainability.

There is likely to be some tension inherent among stakeholders who place greater value on a single side of the sustainability triangle.

Ethically Grounded
Those who focus on ethics want food system practices that are consistent with the shared values of compassion, responsibility, respect, fairness and truth. They want to ensure that the increasingly sophisticated and technologically advanced food system doesn’t put profits ahead of ethical principles and that scientific verification is not confused with ethical justification. When this side of the triangle is out of balance, critics say there is no scientific basis for the claims being made and that the ethical demands will jeopardize the economic viability of the system.

Scientifically Verified
Those with a primary interest in scientific verification are data driven. They want specific, measurable and repeatable observations to provide the basis for their objective decisions. They believe science can provide the insight and guidance necessary to make reasonable determinations about how food systems should be managed. When this side of the triangle is out of balance, critics claim the organization is relying on science while ignoring ethical considerations and that research may be done and recommendations made without consideration of the economic impact.

Economically Viable
Those responsible for the bottom line are focused on profitability. They work every day to respond to demand, control costs and increase efficiency to maximize the return on investment. They have to manage the increasingly complex demands of competing in a global marketplace with volatile commodity markets and ruthless competition. When this side of the triangle is out of balance, critics claim profits outweigh ethical principles and that business decisions are made without the benefit of scientific verification, placing those decisions at risk when questioned by those who value validation.

If a system is unable to operate while maintaining a balance of practices that are ethically grounded, scientifically verified and economically viable, it will collapse. The collapse may subject producers, processors, restaurants or retailers to undue pressure that includes consumer protests or boycotts, unfavorable shareholder resolutions, uninformed supply chain mandates, regulation, legislation, litigation or even bankruptcy.

Maintaining balance is never easy. Success demands an increased level of communication and engagement and willingness to look for solutions that are ethically grounded, scientifically verified and economically viable for each segment of the food system. Only by working with stakeholders across the food chain can companies maintain the integrity of a sustainable system.

Conclusion: It’s About Trust
As the distance most consumers have from the food they eat increases and the level of technology that is implemented in food production and processing increases, we must dramatically improve the ability and commitment to build trust with customers and consumers. This will require a new way of thinking, a new way of operating and a new way of communicating. Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “We cannot solve problems using the same thinking we used when we created them.” The old model of relying solely on science and attacking your critics is not sufficient to protect your freedom to operate in today’s environment.

Building trust requires an increase in early stakeholder engagement, transparency, professionalism, assessment and verification at all levels. Customers, policymakers, community leaders and consumers must be given permission to believe that today’s food production is consistent with their values and expectations. Failure to provide that assurance will increase pressure to revoke the food system’s social license to operate and replace it with greater social control of production practices, environmental practices and the use of technology.

To be successful, the food system must build and communicate an ethical foundation for, and engage in values-based communication to build, the trust that protects freedom to operate. That requires a consistent demonstration of a commitment to practices that are ethically grounded, scientifically verified and economically viable.

Charlie Arnot is chief executive officer of CFI (, a nonprofit organization established to build consumer trust and confidence in today’s food system, and president of CMA.

1. Sapp, S. G., C. Arnot, J. Fallon, T. Fleck, D. Soorholtz, M. Sutton-Vermeulen and J.J.H. Wilson. 2009. Consumer trust in the U.S. food system: An examination of the recreancy theorem. Rural Sociol 74(4):525–545.