We love food? No, we fear it!

A plea by Andreas Severin

Reporters from german news station WDR receive explosive footage. It shows meat lying on the floor being picked up and thrown back onto the cutting table. The journalists start their research and come across a large poultry producer who is one of the cutting plant’s customers. Employees anonymously confirm the dirty practice, a food expert confirms its inadmissibility. And finally a veterinary office is found, which informs that these reproaches have been on record for months. The story is now coherent, holds itself still a few days in the Top news and the reporters rush to the next Scoop. What remains is damage.

Perhaps the injured parties can still consider themselves lucky that journalistically correct work was done here. Because even journalists can be different when they are under pressure to find a scandal. Sometimes pressure is exerted on alleged customers of a company under suspicion to make a public statement about an accusation. If they don’t cooperate, they might even hold up one of the customer’s products in front of the camera. An interesting division of labor can sometimes be observed in the market: Private production companies go “truffle hunting.” They pick up clues from the market and research them on their own initiative. When they come across a sufficiently exciting scoop, they flesh out the story editorially in an initial synopsis and offer it to various broadcasters and formats for sale.

Hardly any market is as susceptible to this scandalization and also as productive as the food market., a german website that warns consumers, issued 71 product warnings in 2016. Experts consider what is officially reported there each year, be it metal splinters in spreads, coli bacteria in Roquefort, methanol in vodka or simply a faulty declaration, to be the tip of the iceberg. Some producers fear the market’s reaction to a product malfunction, be it consumer reluctance to buy or retail delisting, more than possible criminal prosecution.
The industry says food today is higher quality, more diverse and safer than ever before. In fact, food is highly trusted by nearly three-quarters of Germans. Conversely, studies show that consumers are full of mistrust toward producers. Industry representatives never tire of invoking producers’ willingness to engage in dialog and transparency of production. But it’s not that simple. Consumers are not very interested in analyses, declarations and evidence. They look for clear messages or seals and are happy to be emotionally led by third parties, because it is too much for them to check the truth of the information offered to them themselves. “Don’t confuse me with facts!” characterizes the attitude of many consumers in these times of alternative facts. No, above all, it must feel good to make a purchase decision. The emotional consciousness, like the body, thus needs a continuous supply of food.
In the food business, fear has become the most important currency.

For producers, on the other hand, many of them medium-sized family businesses, fear has become a basic condition. They feel harassed by politicians with ever new regulations, persecuted by NGOs, underestimated by consumers and exploited by retailers. The media are nothing more than a cold echo chamber that fuels mistrust and has the power to destroy livelihoods. All hysteria?

“Look up, trust in God…”

Perhaps there is a traditional fatalistic basic attitude in many producer companies that prevents them from representing their own position more confidently in public and instead leaves it to associations that have simply been overburdened with this dimension of trust work for years.

As recently as 2012, Carl-Albrecht Bartmer, the current DLG President, made an appeal to his members that was as desperate as it was urgent: “Shouldn’t we be alarmed that consumers are virtually unaware of how the agricultural and food industries produce? Do we not have a communicative Bringschuld, of each handicraft enterprise, a nourishing industry as a whole. Have we not for too long, through a lack of our own presentation, placed the sovereignty of interpretation on topics of the food industry in the hands of the Wieners and Bodes, in the hands of the media, who are naturally interested in audience figures and circulation? Isn’t it perceived as the industry ‘hiding’ if we don’t conduct public relations with more intensity and thus don’t counteract the impression that we have something to hide behind closed doors?”

In fact, the attitude of those addressed has changed little in the years that have followed. On the contrary, new food crises, social shitstorms, personal threats from “activists” have given new fuel to fear. The openness to cooperate with the media has dwindled. As has the willingness to let strangers onto the premises at an “open house.” Those who thought that transparency and dialogue would lead to a new appreciation for the demanding business of food production find themselves facing closed doors. From both sides, mind you. Apparently, producers don’t want to admit that the closed barn door of communication will further exacerbate their crisis. Their silence makes them vulnerable, underestimated and increasingly susceptible to blackmail. It would not be so difficult to find a new understanding and trust.
Food producers must finally do more to make their ethics and sustainability recognizable. This does not even require the use of dark PR guns. It would be easy for many German producers – often family businesses in their umpteenth generation – to make it credible that they are committed to a lived tradition, heritage and social values. In many cases, their quality practices and traditional values can be credibly linked to the fields of action of sustainability.

After all, what is crucial for long-term and resilient relationships of trust, as studies show, is trust in the ethics of the producing company. It is time for producers to take more visible responsibility for the circumstances in which profits are generated. “Good” companies, i.e. companies that respect social standards, handle natural resources prudently and have animal welfare in mind, have a clear advantage here. Their product promises are more easily trusted and they are even better able to cope with crises. And this does not only apply to organic producers. What can be learned from them, however, is that gaining trust requires transparency and an ongoing effort in public trust-building.

A good place to start might be to adopt the mindset of a branded producer. These know that they must communicate the value of their brand to the market every day. To do this, that brand has to talk, fight, and certainly take a beating sometimes. Those who show this attitude will reap trust and secure a piece of the future for their company.

You can find more info on our Crisis topic page.