Consumer trust in UK food dropping as cost-of-living bites

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New research from YouGov commissioned by Red Tractor and YouGov has revealed a significant drop in consumer trust across almost all British institutions, with food and energy seeing the biggest deterioration since 2021.

The research, conducted with over 3,500 adults across the UK, found that trust in food has declined by 8 per cent overall, and this increases to 13 per cent for those in skilled, manual employment.

The swings in trust come as shoppers are forced to change their buying habits because of the cost-of-living crisis. Almost half (46 per cent) of people say they are changing what they buy to feed their families. 30 per cent of consumers are buying less meat, this increases to 35 per cent for those from lower income households. Almost a quarter of shoppers (24 per cent) say they are trading down, buying what they perceive to be food produced to lower food safety and animal welfare standards, which increases to 29 per cent for people on lower incomes. Finally, and worryingly, our research shows that 13 per cent are buying less fruit and vegetables, which again rises to 19 per cent for people with less disposable income.

20% change

Last year, 78 per cent of people said they trusted the safety and quality of food purchased from supermarkets. This year, only 58 per cent said they trust supermarkets. The striking 20 per cent change in trust suggests that as people switch and trade down to value ranges, the standards for these ranges are assumed to be weaker. However, when it comes to food and farming, the UK is one of the most regulated countries in the world. The strict regulations on food safety, animal welfare or environmental protection apply to value lines which use assured British produce.

More than half (55 per cent) of shoppers who trust UK food said the UK’s system of high standards and regulation was their number one reason for doing so. Assurance schemes and labelling also play a major role in confidence. Seven out of ten (69 per cent) people look to food marques and assurance schemes to ensure food is safe and produced to a high quality, with British Lion, Red Tractor and Fair Trade the most recognised among consumers. Of those marques, only British Lion and Red Tractor ensure that produce is British.

Christine Tacon, chair, Red Tractor, said: “With the impact of the war in Ukraine and the cost-of-living crisis taking hold, it’s no surprise that confidence in so many aspects of daily life has fallen. While British food continues to be highly trusted, our latest Trust in Food Index shows that as people are forced to trade down into cheaper products, they lose confidence in the way the food is produced.

“That’s understandable – but it’s also unnecessary. Whilst some shoppers now struggle to afford the prime cuts and choice ingredients, if they buy assured British food, the strict regulations on food safety, animal welfare and other aspects of food production, apply equally to value ranges as they do to premium products. We must tackle this before the drop in trust becomes toxic, by making it clear to people doing their shopping.

“Identifying products as assured through schemes like Red Tractor or British Lion can address people’s perception that “cheaper means lower standards. Retailers should play their part by adopting food assurance marques on all applicable value ranges.”

Must work together

“As an industry we must work together to reassure people that whatever their price range, they can be confident in the standards and safety of food produced in the UK- people should never have to choose between price and food safety”.

Sir Robert Goodwill, MP for Scarborough and Whitby and chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, said: “This report provides valuable insights into the impact that the pandemic, war in Ukraine and the rising cost of living are having on the choices the public face when they buy food – and the trust they have in those choices.

“It is encouraging to see that despite these pressures, overall trust in UK food remains high. This reflects the excellent quality of UK produce and the high animal welfare, safety and environmental standards our food is produced to.

“As the Government looks to grapple with the increased costs that our food producers and consumers face – and the impact this is having on our food security – we may have to revisit the balance we strike between the food we import and the food we grow ourselves. If we are to seek to grow more food ourselves, it will be vital to maintain trust in the UK food system and to ensure that no one has to compromise standards for price. The Red Tractor scheme plays an important role in raising the public’s awareness that our food is produced to high standards.”

Andrew Opie, director of Food and Sustainability, said: “Customers are more price focused than ever but still expect retailers to deliver high standards in animal welfare and the environment. Red Tractor addresses that challenge, ensuring high standards of UK food production, whilst delivering on value.”

Farmer performance

Overall trust in the role of famers in the food chain remains high, at 77 per cent.  However, this has declined since the first report, with just over half (52 per cent) of people believing that farmers are performing well on animal welfare, compared with six out of ten (59 per cent) of people last year. Consumer also perceive that the farmers are not performing well on issues around climate change, fertilisers, food and plastic waste.

Sustainability and welfare

Consumers continue to care about high welfare standards and sustainable production, with three quarters (75 per cent) of consumers saying they value good animal welfare standards. Two thirds of people value reducing plastic waste (64 per cent) and low use of chemical fertilisers (60 per cent), in the production of their food, with 49 per cent of shoppers saying that labelling which indicates that a product is sustainably farmed would positively influence their buying decisions in a supermarket or restaurant.

However, the research also found that many consumers do not understand a lot of the terminology relating to farming methods or sustainability. While two thirds of people said they could explain what organic means,  only half (49 percent) of respondents said they felt confident explaining terms such as room to roam.

Brexit and trust outside the UK

In other findings, the Index found that people believe Brexit is having an impact on food – 26 per cent of respondents said they felt the quality of food in the UK has been falling over the last two years.

Furthermore, 43 per cent of consumers believe that new trade deals will reduce standards of food in the UK further. The U.S. and India – both countries the Government is seeking trade deals with – have very low levels of trust. 27 per cent and 18 per cent of consumers trust food that originates in those countries respectively.

At the other end of the spectrum, Ireland and New Zealand are the most trusted countries for imported food among survey respondents, followed by many European and Nordic countries, such as Italy, Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, and Germany. The Index found that 58 per cent of consumers look at the country of origin before buying a product.

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About Author

Editor of Agronomist and Arable Farmer as well as responsibility for the Agronomist and Arable Farmer and Farm Business websites. After 17 years milking cows on the family farm John started writing about agriculture in 1998 and has since written for a variety of publications and has developed a wide circle of contacts within the industry. When not working John is an avid follower of Stoke City.