Why We Hate 'Big Food' (And What Big Food Can Do About It)

1968 is the year we began to hate Big Food. TIME Magazine declared it the year that shaped a generation. The optimism and conformity that defined the 1950s began seeping away earlier in the decade, but the dramatic events of 1968 marked the end of an era, and with it the historical trust Americans had in institutions.

Both Bobby Kennedy, Jr. and Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated that year. Protestors at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago were attacked by police and troops. The Vietnam War was raging, as was opposition to the war on college campuses across the country. Christmas Eve that year marked a milestone in the environmental movement as images of earth from outer space were seen for the first time, generating new awareness that resources on the blue planet were finite.

The wave of high profile incidents that eroded trust in institutions continued in 1970 with the Kent State shootings and in 1972 with the Watergate break-in, which led to the first resignation of an American President, shaking trust in our government to the core.

The frequency and visibility of violations of public trust by government, military, business and religious institutions has been consistent enough over the last four plus decades to breed broad public skepticism about whether or not institutions are worthy of trust. Three Mile Island, Exxon Valdez, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggert, Iran-Contra, Arthur-Andersen, Enron, WorldCom, Clinton/Lewinsky, the sub-prime mortgage crisis, priest abuse cover-up, BP oil spill, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, Abu Ghraib, Penn State, Congressional gridlock and government shutdowns are all on the list of events and individuals that contributed to the erosion of American's trust in institutions.

We've also seen tremendous change in the food system since 1968. Agriculture has applied technology that makes farming look drastically different. Farm animals are raised indoors. Pigs, cows and chickens are raised on a scale that would boggle the minds of our grandparents. Farm machinery as big as a house uses GPS to navigate farm fields with ease and efficiency, applying fertilizer and crop chemicals with pinpoint precision.

Similar changes have occurred in food processing and retailing. Technology has replaced labor and the resulting food system has become larger, more integrated and more consolidated. Today, three companies control more than 55% of flour milling, ten companies process more than 80% of chicken, four packers process 85% of beef and five food retailers now sell the majority of our groceries.

While these changes generally make food safer, more available and more affordable than ever before, they also reinforce the belief that the food system has become the type of institution we've been taught not to trust since 1968. There's growing conviction that "Big Food" is out of touch with the values of consumers and likely to put profit ahead of public interest.

Last year, the Center for Food Integrity asked consumers what it would take for them to not hate Big Food. The answer was loud and clear: Be more transparent about processes and products. We dove into defining transparency and what specifically consumers expect from trustworthy farms and food companies. We identified and measured the impact of seven basic elements of Trust Building Transparency.

  1. Accuracy - Provide information that is credible, reliable and complete.
  2. Motivation - Demonstrate that your motives are aligned with public interests and not exclusively driven by maximizing profits. (Consumers understand business needs to be profitable, but are skeptical that companies will put public interest ahead of maximizing profit.)
  3. Disclosure - Publicly share both positive and negative information that helps your stakeholders make informed decisions. Make the information timely, easy to find and easy to understand.
  4. Stakeholder participation - Ask your stakeholders for input on important issues. Make it easy for them to provide and acknowledge their feedback. Explain how and why you make decisions.
  5. Relevance - Ask your stakeholders what information is important to them and provide information they deem relevant.
  6. Clarity - Provide information that is easy for your stakeholders to understand.
  7. Credibility - Take responsibility and apologize when you make mistakes. Involve stakeholders and explain plans for corrective action. Demonstrate you genuinely care about issues important to your stakeholders.

Trust in institutions is no longer granted, it has to be earned. These seven simple steps provide a clear path for building trust. The growing public skepticism about food is the perfect catalyst to drive a new level of transparency across the food system. If Big Food wants to overcome that skepticism and prove that it is indeed worthy of trust, it will have to be more open, more engaged and more transparent. As Bob Dylan famously sang, "The times, they are a-changin'."