If the election of Donald Trump and the conversative-populist movement that unpredictably brought him to office accomplishes nothing else, it stands to even further weaken the average American's trust in traditional institutions. For better or for worse, according to an annual Gallup poll, less than a third of Americans on average say they have either "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in 14 traditional institutions, including the military, the police, the church, the medical system, the presidency, the supreme court, public schools, banks, organized labor , the criminal justice syste, TV news, newspapers, big business and Congress. It is the third straight year in a row Gallup has reported that phenomenon. But Trumpism is less the cause than the result—Congress, banks, organized religion and the news media have all suffered a decline in public trust for a decade now.
And the result for 2017 and beyond: Absent those trustworthy institutions, everyone has now become his own food and farming expert. Expect this often unsettling trend to continue, affecting your food sales. Witness:
Mercola, Food Babe and David Wolfe. Joseph Mercola, the 61-year old osteopathic physician, natural-foods purveyor, and founder and video star of Mercola Health Resources, who once famously advised his readers to avoid grocery stores if they want healthy food, shook off a mid-April 2016 $5.3 million settlement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission over false-advertising accusations. According to the Chicago Tribune, Mercola sold tanning beds for up to $4,000 apiece by reassuring consumers not only were they not harmful, but in fact actually reduced their chances of getting cancer. Mercola's website empire continues to flourish, though, offering unsound advice on health issues from vaccination to flouride in water to organic food. By one estimate, his site continues to attract an estimated 5 million to 7 million visits monthly. And he still lists more than a quarter million Twitter followers and 1.5 million Facebook followers.
Similarly, Vani Hari, a.k.a. "Food Babe," the internet blogger who grew a guilty penchant for fast food and disdain for science into an estimated 3 million viewers and a best-selling book deal, and David Wolfe, informercial star turned "rock star of the superfoods and longevity universe" whose Facebook following now outnumbers the entire state of Nebraska five times over, continue to flourish by pandering to the worst suspicions about food and health.
Critical media—gone. Whether you love or hate the mass media that the Trump movement has so successfully positioned as disloyal opposition, there's little arguing that business has been so economically hollowed out that meaningful journalism is on the ropes. The information vaccuum being created is being filled by more partisan sources, often without being recognized as such. One recent example: The National Grocers Association's Education and Leadership Weekly newsletter in January included the story "Should we be labeling genetically modified foods?" Although an important question, and one Farmer Goes to Market has examined in the past, the "custom-content" story written for NGA members based its reporting on questionable claims from an activist organization with no balanced critique of the dubious science behind those claims. Get ready for more of that style of advocacy journalism disguised as news.
Rogue agency Twitter feeds. In testament to the dilution of trust in institutions, a curious phenonomen accompanying Trump's election starkly illustrates even the government institutions themselves no longer trust their own authority. President Trump's reported attempts to put a "gag order" on agencies including USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency—reports which themselves now appear to be "fake news"—spawned "resistance teams" of agency scientists and other employees who took to their own Twitter feeds to post "unofficial" discussions of issues they believed were being repressed by the new administration, from climate change to food and drug issues.
Sustainability according to the marketing department. With little to no meaningful regulatory definition and an apparent public appetite to hear them—even if apparently no true consumer demand can be proven—the world of product claims about food justice, sustainability and health have become the Wild Wild West, where everyone's rushing to stake a claim. Case in point: The new HowGood label, which in the past three years has expanded its services into grocers in 26 states and more than 250 stores, including a highly visible Giant Foods pilot project. The 20-year-old system, which attempts to boil up to 70 different indicators down to a simple good/better/best labeling system, includes measures of pesticide use, fertilizer control and animal welfare. But it also includes more shadowy measures of packaging, "labor accountability," "reputation index," and simply how much information a company is willing to divulge to them.
Amid this trend toward the shattering and scattering of food authority lies some good news for the grocer, although it's a mixed blessing: Gallup's surveying does show Americans retain some trust in institutions, in particular, the military, the police and you—small businesses. So opportunity to lead exists. But the bad news is that it's not hard to squander that fragile trust. A recent survey shows almost half of consumers say they don't trust what food labels tell them. Today's food marketers trying to sell product claims are borrowing the grocer's credibility to do so, and if those claims don't live up to customer expectations, it could be that trusted retailer who ends up holding the bag.