Trust and distrust: Cognitive decisions or social relations?

  • Kjærnes U
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Abstract

The issue of consumer trust has repeatedly been raised in relation to food policy events in Europe over the last couple of decades. Based on the project ?Consumer Trust in Food? (funded by the European Commission, contract no. QLK1?CT?2001?00291), the paper discusses explanations to variations and changes in trust. Representative population surveys were conducted in Denmark, Italy, Germany, Great Britain, Norway, and Portugal. Opinions on trust in food show large and consistent differences across the countries. While trust is high in Great Britain and Scandinavia, levels are generally much lower in Italy, Portugal and Germany. It may seem as if the considerable regulatory and market?based reforms that came in the aftermath of the BSE crisis have had positive impacts on trust. But trust is based even on other issues than food safety, and people are generally more sceptical when it comes to ethical issues, quality or nutrition. It is argued that cognitive models, focussing on individual risk perception and communication, are insufficient to explain these variations. An alternative approach is outlined, where consumer trust is understood with reference to processes of institutionalisation, strongly linked to normative as well as organisational frames. By considering food consumption as the outcome of complex interrelations between consumers, the market, the state, and civil society, we can identify characteristically different types of conditions for trust. Trust seems to refer not only to shared norms and expectations, but also to the concrete organisation and performance of food institutions, regarding predictability, openness, etc. It is a matter of both organisations' capability and willingness to meet expectations. Historical and cultural conditions as well as rapid shifts may lead to discrepancies between expectations and performance ? which may be expressed as distrust ? politically and in the market. It is therefore suggested that institutionalising consumer distrust may represent an important way of building trust in modern food institutions.
The issue of consumer trust has repeatedly been raised in relation to food policy events in Europe over the last couple of decades. Based on the project ?Consumer Trust in Food? (funded by the European Commission, contract no. QLK1?CT?2001?00291), the paper discusses explanations to variations and changes in trust. Representative population surveys were conducted in Denmark, Italy, Germany, Great Britain, Norway, and Portugal. Opinions on trust in food show large and consistent differences across the countries. While trust is high in Great Britain and Scandinavia, levels are generally much lower in Italy, Portugal and Germany. It may seem as if the considerable regulatory and market?based reforms that came in the aftermath of the BSE crisis have had positive impacts on trust. But trust is based even on other issues than food safety, and people are generally more sceptical when it comes to ethical issues, quality or nutrition. It is argued that cognitive models, focussing on individual risk perception and communication, are insufficient to explain these variations. An alternative approach is outlined, where consumer trust is understood with reference to processes of institutionalisation, strongly linked to normative as well as organisational frames. By considering food consumption as the outcome of complex interrelations between consumers, the market, the state, and civil society, we can identify characteristically different types of conditions for trust. Trust seems to refer not only to shared norms and expectations, but also to the concrete organisation and performance of food institutions, regarding predictability, openness, etc. It is a matter of both organisations' capability and willingness to meet expectations. Historical and cultural conditions as well as rapid shifts may lead to discrepancies between expectations and performance ? which may be expressed as distrust ? politically and in the market. It is therefore suggested that institutionalising consumer distrust may represent an important way of building trust in modern food institutions.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Comparative
  • Europe
  • Food consumption
  • Public opinion
  • Trust

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Authors

  • Unni Kjærnes

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