The Center for Food Integrity  and the National Council on Chain Restaurants hosted the 4th Annual 2009 Food System Summit Oct. 6-7 in Kansas City. The Summit drew over 110 representatives from chain restaurants, livestock and agriculture organizations, state departments of agriculture, food processors, animal health companies and state legislators. Bovine Veterinarian asked CFI CEO Charlie Arnot about the significance of this year's conference.

Bovine Veterinarian: What was the significance of this conference this year in terms of subject matter, speakers and attendees?

Charlie Arnot: This year’s theme was, “The New Normal – building consumer trust in a period of unprecedented market volatility.” These are challenging times for everyone in food production. We’re challenged economically, politically and socially. We wanted stakeholders from across the food system to come together to talk about how we can work together to build consumer trust and confidence in the contemporary food system. Part of that process is hearing from those who are critical of the system like Robert Kenner, the director of Food, Inc. We can learn from our critics, even if we don’t agree with their point of view.

If you lose a football game and don’t take time to watch the game film to learn how to improve, you’ve not only lost the game but the opportunity to improve.  Listening to those who critique the modern food system can help us better understand the issues and develop long term strategies to build consumer trust.

BV: What was significant or surprising this year in your consumer survey regarding animal welfare?

CA: The biggest surprise is that it’s about more than welfare. Consumer support for the statement, “if animals are treated decently and humanely I have no problem eating meat, milk and eggs,” has declined significantly over the past three years. To me that decline indicates the concerns extend beyond welfare. The other important learning is that while consumers trust farmers, they are not sure that contemporary production is still farming. We are going to have to be more transparent and more open in promoting the great men and women who produce our food on contemporary farms using technology, protecting the environment and caring for animals.

BV: Where do you think the opportunities are for the livestock industry to educate and build trust with consumers, especially where welfare is concerned?

CA: We need to understand that this is a process and not an event. We won’t build consumer trust with a single strategy or tactic in a short period of time. We’ve completely revolutionized food production over the past 60 years. It wasn’t that long ago that nearly a third of our population was involved in food production. Today it is less than 1%. That’s a wonderful testament to the productivity of the American farmer. The public doesn’t understand contemporary food production and we need to commit to a long term strategy of showing who we are and what we do. We need to help the public understand that the size, scale and technology on a modern farm are different than they were 40 years ago, but the commitment of today’s farmer to do what’s right has never been stronger. It will take a long term commitment and a willingness to engage the public if we want to build trust and confidence.