Consumer trust in food is high in the United Kingdom, Denmark, and Norway, but low in Italy and Portugal and relatively low in Germany. Research also shows that consumers in these countries are most sceptical about meat products, fast-food outlets and food processors. These findings are revealed in the recently published study "Trust in Food in Europe, A Comparative Analysis". The research presents data from surveys completed in the above mentioned six countries. The study was conducted as part of the EU TRUST IN FOOD project (2002-2004). The project aimed to provide a better understanding of the reasons behind, and the implications of, varying levels of consumer trust in the field of food. In addition to surveys, institutional studies were carried out in the six countries and at EU level. The initiative is part of general EU research on consumer perception and behaviour, socio-economic and demographic factors, as well as the acceptability of typical food products.
"Today, consumers expect healthy and safe food and increasingly demand to know where their food comes from. That is why we are focusing on a new "fork to farm" approach in the EU's Research Programmes, focusing on consumers' interests and points of view on food," said European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin "Food production must meet consumers" expectations as well as environmental, health and competitiveness objectives. This requires an ambitious research agenda with strong public-private cooperation at the European level."
Apples, not burgers, top the "trust" list
Consumers, irrespective of where they live, have more trust in fruit and vegetables than meat products when it comes to food safety. About one in five consumers trust the quality of burgers from fast food outlets and meals offered in restaurants. However, the level of trust in various foods varies markedly. The most trusting consumers are the British, followed by the Danes and the Norwegians. Italy and Portugal represent the low-trust regions. German consumers are also sceptical. Similar variations between countries were found when consumers were asked about their trust in various institutional players in the event of a food scare. Variations in the levels of trust between countries were generally larger than variations between social groups within countries.
A broad sample
The research is based on a total of 8870 interviews, including about 1000 respondents from the smaller European countries and about 2000 from the larger ones. The selected countries provide a representative picture of European countries, varying in size and geography and providing a balance of countries from the south, middle and north of Europe. The countries also vary with regard to consumer distrust and institutional change in the food sector.
Many consumers are pessimistic
Analysis shows that between one third and one quarter of consumers think that the price, taste and quality of food as well as farming methods, nutrition and safety have deteriorated over time. Italian and Portuguese consumers display the highest level of pessimism, with 60-80% believing that food prices, taste and quality have worsened over the past twenty years. But a lower proportion believes that food safety and nutrition has become worse. Pessimism in all countries is associated with trust in individual food items.
"Fork to farm" approach
To help overcome some consumers’ pessimism towards some food products, the EU’s “fork to farm” R&D approach takes into account consumers’ demands and feedback right along the food chain. So that consumers’ expectations and demands such as environmental, rural development and safety concerns are taken into account in food production – rather than the other way around.
Consumer organisations and authorities are more trusted than food processing companies
When asked about their level of trust in various institutional players in the case of a food scare, consumers rarely believed they were told the whole truth. Less than 10 percent of the respondents in all the surveyed countries trusted the food-processing industry to tell the truth about a food scare. About 10 percent trusted supermarket chains and 14 percent trusted farmers. The highest levels of trust were placed in consumer organisations, food experts and governmental bodies. The ranking of trust in institutional players was practically identical across all six nations.
Any interpretation of these findings must take into consideration the fact that such players may have different roles and profiles in each of the different countries. However, the results indicate that consumer organisations, food experts and governmental control bodies are widely trusted irrespective of the country.
Great Britain, Denmark, and Norway appear as high trust countries
British respondents score highest on a trust in food index. They are also the most optimistic in regards to the development of food over recent decades. When it comes to trust in public authorities, however, the British are more sceptical. The Danes and Norwegians score relatively high on most trust indicators. However, the high levels of trust in food found in Great Britain should be understood as a positive response to the measures taken in the wake of the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy epidemic (BSE; better known as “Mad Cow Disease”) and other food scares.
However, distrust should not be seen only as a response to food scares. German consumers join the Italians and the Portuguese as being very sceptical in regard to most of the measured trust indicators in this study. German consumers’ general scepticism is compensated by adequate purchasing strategies that favour safe foods. Southern European consumers do not generally believe their countries manage to avoid these hazards very well.
The Portuguese are the most pessimistic with regard to the development of food quality over time, but are more trusting in food in general than Italian consumers.
According to the overall hypothesis of the study, social and institutional conditions are responsible for this diverse picture of trust in food standards and different players. These differences will be further investigated in the next phase of the analysis. The project will also analyse the development of food and consumer policies in the EU, with the aim of focussing more on consumer interests in European food regulation.
Understanding the consumer
The TRUST IN FOOD study is part of a series of research projects funded through the EU’s Research Framework Programmes. TRUST IN FOOD looks at food and consumers’ trust in the supply of food, while other projects examine consumers’ buying behaviour and perceptions of typical food products and the role of novel foods, such as food ingredients with a natural origin (phytosterol and phytostanol esters). The recently launched European HEATOX project (www.heatox.org) will investigate harmful substances formed during the cooking process and will provide a strategy to communicate these dangers.