Upcoming public trust research to consider effect of COVID-19

The Canadian Centre for Food Integrity intends to use past research as a baseline for pre-pandemic levels of trust in the Canadian food system

When the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity (CCFI) presents its annual public trust research this fall, it will encompass perspective on the pandemic.

CCFI’s research includes an annual quantitative study, conducted online with a representative sample of Canadians to measure public attitudes about Canadian agriculture and food. This year, the study will provide CCFI with the chance to see how the COVID-19 pandemic and its challenges to the Canadian food system may have influenced public trust in the system.

“There’s a great opportunity to use CCFI’s past research as a benchmark for public opinion on Canada’s food system from which we can compare and analyze shifts through the lens of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Ashley Bruner, CCFI’s research coordinator, in a recent webinar.

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“Key issues covered in the past, such as food safety, both domestically and internationally, cost of food and trust in Canada’s food system and stakeholders, have certainly been impacted by COVID-19 and we’ll have the tracking data to measure the magnitude and demographic nuances of these changes.”

Earning the public’s trust, Bruner explained, is necessary to the growth of the Canadian agri-food industry.

“Before COVID-19, some might have argued that public trust was simply a communications issue, but with the onset of this pandemic, we have tested the bounds of public trust across all industries,” she said. “We can expect food-specific trust to be impacted by the pandemic, although we’ll have to wait to see if that impact is positive or negative.”

Along with CCFI’s research advisory committee, members and partners, the organization developed questions on new areas of focus for this year’s survey. New topics include issues specific to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as food safety perceptions, consumer confidence in the Canadian food system and the effect of reduced income on food purchases. Other new areas include emerging food trends, where Canadians go for information on specific food-related topics and a more in-depth look at environmental concerns.

For the past four years, Canadians rated access to healthy, affordable food as their biggest concern among a wide range of issues, with six out of 10 Canadians in 2019 stating they are very concerned about this.

“Aside from watching whether or not food issues will remain the top of the list for the fifth year in a row, CCFI has also been tracking some specific food system issues that have been receiving increasing coverage these days,” said Bruner.

One of these issues is the cost of food. In 2019, CCFI saw half of its respondents saying they felt more concerned about the affordability of healthy food than they were the previous year, a significant increase compared to the 2018 data. The percentage of respondents who strongly agree that Canadians’ food is among the most affordable in the world has been consistently low in the previous years’ studies.

“Our 2020 research will dig deeper into these sentiments and will measure perceptions of affordability by specific types of food or commodity type to better understand which types of food specifically are the sore spots that Canadians find to be too expensive.”

Another area of interest is food safety, with several issues in this category that CCFI is watching for potential shifts. The trend of buying locally produced food will also be examined, as this was moving upward in 2019 compared to previous years, Bruner noted, and is now receiving more attention.

“There are real questions around the longevity of this trend,” she said, referencing a recent article in The Canadian Grocer. The article found that although some consumers are more interested in local food, “in time the two biggest trends in grocery that have existed for years will be more important in a grander scheme…Canadians are looking for high quality at a lower price.”

The 2019 research revealed that while nine in 10 Canadians say they know little to nothing about modern agricultural practices, six in 10 want to learn more.

“Interest in our food system has almost certainly increased in the past months, so this figure, if we were to ask it today, would likely be even higher.”

Part of the survey looks at the level of trust that Canadians have in different food system stakeholders. In 2019, farmers and ranchers were rated the most trustworthy of these stakeholders, with 42 per cent of respondents rating them with a high level of trust. Next in line is Canadian agriculture overall at 36 per cent, Canada’s food system overall at 30 per cent and grocery stores at about 20 per cent.

Bruner sees room for improvement in building trust and is interested to see how the events of the last months may affect this question.

“Our food system more recently has been praised for its quick and innovative response to the pandemic. So this question will be an important one to see if Canadians will recognize and reward these actions with increased trust.”

About the author

Field editor

Piper Whelan

Piper Whelan is a field editor with Canadian Cattlemen. She grew up on a purebred, Maine-Anjou ranch near Irricana, Alta., and previously wrote for Top Stock, Western Horse Review, and various beef breed publications.

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