Over the last couple of days, I’ve been at the Center for Food Integrity Food Summit.  In addition to hearing from executives from across the food chain with vastly varying opinions, consumer panels enlightened us and provided a glimpse into another world.

Several on the animal care consumer panel didn’t really believe that labels are meaningful; the generational differences were apparent with the levels of food label use.   This is consistent with recent Food and Drug Administration findings that consumer use decreased for most label components. “It declined approximately 3 percentage points for the Nutrition Facts panel, 11 percentage points for the ingredient list, and 10 percentage points for the panel’s information about calories, fat, cholesterol, and sodium. Only the use of information about fiber and sugars did not decline over the 10-year period. Use of fiber information increased by 2 percentage points, while that for sugars held steady.”

Special labeling may add to the confusion or be viewed with skepticism. In the words of a single mother on the panel when asked about a label with validation animal treatment, “it may or may not be accurate. A stamp on the package doesn’t really mean anything.” 

Steroids came up as a major hot button issue on both panels; comments were made about early development of girls because of “the steroids and chemicals used in food production.”  The thought was that if food production was being pushed so hard, then it could translate into negative consequences for those consuming the product.

Sustainability was defined by the consumers in varying fashions; it went well beyond environment and extended across the food system.  Their definitions ranged from “having the means in place to provide a consistent food supply” to being more comfortable with longevity to efficiency to sustaining what we have.

A small subset certainly doesn’t define our reality, but does provide food for thought.   One thing was consistent with research I’ve done over the years; those consumers who had personal familiarity with a producer were far more comfortable when challenged about critical issues in food production.  That begs the question – how can we connect more consumers with farmers?