Biting the Hand that Feeds You

It used to be the case that consumers felt a connection to farmers and had faith in the food that landed on their plates. Even when they didn’t have direct knowledge of how the food supply chain worked. These days it’s a bit different; consumers not only want to know where their food comes from, they also want to know exactly what is in it.

In reality, we’ve always bought and consumed our food based on trust – there’s just no way to fully guarantee what we are putting on our plates. To some consumers, this is a major concern that impacts their everyday shopping habits. For other consumers, admittedly still the majority, their concerns are only raised once a particular issue with a product is reported in the media.

In defense of the food supply chain

The discussions that tend to take place in the wake of these rare issues are one-sided – producers and the industry need to do a better job. Those of us in the industry know that it is not that simple. Producers are doing their best to supply the consumer with what they need, in spite of some challenging obstacles. For instance, most producers still receive the same price for their produce as they did 15 years ago. What a lot of people don’t realize is that since then costs have increased by up to three times.

Ultimately, the consumer doesn’t care about excuses, so it is up to the producers to make trust a major component and thus strengthen the bond with the consumer. This in no way is an easy task as it only takes one problem for years of hard earned trust to be eradicated.

In other words, a producer’s customer is also their worst critic and any mistake will result in industry-wide damage, the likes of which most other industries would never receive. So if we have a consumer that needs us to survive, but on the other hand will shoot us down if something goes wrong, wouldn’t you consider that biting the hand that feeds you?

There is no doubt that consumers take food supply and producers for granted. In fact, let me take it one step further; the modern consumer also takes their food for granted. In a way, you can’t blame them. Their connection is to their local supermarket where aisle five is always magically fully-stocked. Consumers have forgotten where the farmer fits into the equation and have lost the link between the farm and the plate.

Fixing the producer-consumer relationship

So how do we fix this? How do we bridge the gap between the producer and the consumer? How do we get them to understand that one-day aisle five might not have what they need because the food supply chain has broken down?

An academic would probably suggest educating the consumer, but that would require a lot of time and resources with no guarantee of results. While the producer would say switch it all off and let them see and feel the resulting impact. This may be a very quick way to educate the customer, but I’d hate to think what would happen to the level of trust after that.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Problems present opportunities for solutions and high accountability and transparency for consumers will go a long way towards reaffirming the levels of trust. It’s clear to me that the key will come from improved automated traceability.

– David Edwards

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