Meat of the Matter: The Trust Factor

A disturbing new update to an annual survey that measures how much trust people have in government, business and institutions quantifies what most of us already recognize.

Due to a confluence of events, majorities of consumers in the United States and in many other countries are now “distrusters,” people who no longer believe in the institutions and governing structures of society.

According to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, a majority of citizens in two-thirds of the 28 countries surveyed by Edelman, which calls itself “a global communications marketing firm,” have lost faith that business, government, media and even NGOs serve their interests.

In a commentary leading off the firm’s most recent report, Richard Edelman, the president and CEO, wrote that this “profound crisis in trust” began with the Great Recession of 2008-09, and has been exacerbated by the triple threat of globalization, outsourcing and automation. People no longer feel secure about their economic futures, and no longer believe government is effectively addressing those issues.

None of that is a huge surprise, and along with widespread distrust of the public sector, consumers aren’t very sanguine about the business community, either.

Here’s how Edelman assesses a possible reversal of their erosion of trust: “Institutions must move beyond their traditional roles of business as actor and innovator; governments as referee and regulator; media as watchdog; and NGOs as social conscience,” he wrote. “The onus is now on business, the one institution that retains some trust with those skeptical about the system, to prove that it is possible to act in the interest of shareholders and society alike. Free markets can succeed if business works with the people, not just sells to them.”

The Impact of Digital Technology

That is a provocative take on what is easily the most profound crisis affecting Western democracies. Where does that process begin? One promising initiative involves transparency and restoration of trust in the food production system.

There is opportunity in convincing consumers that they can actually believe in labeling claims that promise nutritional and socio-political benefits when branded products are purchased. And to follow Edelman’s logic, the impetus for such efforts needs to originate from the industries themselves, not from top-down regulations promulgated by government officials and politicians who carry little credibility with the public.

To that end, a small group of producers, organized as the Arkansas-based Grass Roots Farmers’ Cooperative, is employing blockchain technology to trace its meat products from farm to fork.

According to a news release about the program, “Blockchain technology allows for public verification of information in the food chain. Shoppers and diners will be able to scan QR codes on Grass Roots products to learn where the meat came from and how the animals were raised.”

That so-called “digital history” will also include stories about the people involved, producers, farmers and butchers, who contributed to portioning and processing the final product.

Cody Hopkins, Grass Roots GM and founding member, noted that the substantial majorities of consumers who distrust the business sector’s honesty and credibility are equally adamant that they want more and better information about what’s in their food and how it’s produced.

“I totally believe it,” Hopkins said. “When I learned about this [blockchain] technology, I thought, ‘This is the solution.’ It’s the perfect way for Grass Roots to offer folks total transparency [and] levels the playing field for small-scale farmers.”

The technology Grass Roots is using was developed by the UK company Provenance, which markets platforms that allow manufacturers and marketers to capture the origins and histories of products, connect that digital information to physical packages, and embed it online.

San Francisco-based Golden Gate Meat Company is launching a trial of Grass Roots’ new technology that will give shoppers the opportunity to scan the products in stores with their smartphones. At the same time, Grass Roots meats are being marketed online directly to consumers.

While some might disagree with the implications about “conventional” production, Grass Roots is straightforward about its philosophy, noting on its website that “All cattle, sheep, hogs, chickens and turkeys are raised outdoors on pastures that mimic their natural habitats.”

That’s a powerful message that articulates a consumer – not business – benefit.

And the co-op emphasizes its ownership by “small-scale farmers” who can deliver meats “straight from our farms to your front door.”

The industry knows that stories sell products, that smaller is more appealing than bigger for food producers, and that the closer to Nature marketers can position their products, the more consumers tend to accept their claims about quality, nutrition and environmental consciousness.

The challenge is to do so with credibility.

One small co-op can’t undo the damage that so many corporate entities concerned solely with bottom line profitability have inflicted on public perceptions of farmers, ranchers and producers, even when the issues that upset people occur downstream of animal agriculture in the processing and marketing sectors.

But the Grass Roots co-op appears poised to leverage new technology to go beyond label statements and offer consumers something that is in critically short supply: Information you can trust.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.