“Food ethics is all about trust” asserted Baroness Miller in her opening remarks at the All Party Parliamentary Food and Health Forum conference on 23 October 2014.

The Food Ethics Council was one of five organisations speaking at the conference, which was prompted by the 2013 horsemeat scandal and the subsequent questions it raised about ethics in the food system.  

Coming away from this conference I was struck by the theme of trust which underpinned many of the key points of debate. As a concept, trust has a strong positive ethical association; but what do we mean by trust? Upon whom are we bestowing our trust? And what exactly are we entrusting them with? 

Trust: a firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something (oxforddictionaries.com) 

Trust was first discussed in reference to the relationship between a consumer and a business. Peter Montagnon, Associate Director of the Institute of Business Ethics, argued that developing consumer trust was the defining feature of business ethics.

A business acting on ethical principles should be extremely transparent so that consumers are fully aware of its business model. This enables customers to make informed decisions when making purchases, hopefully favouring the more ethical company. At a time when levels of consumer trust in companies and government is waning, this type of transparency is even more essential. 

An organisation which puts these principles into practice is the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA). Mark Linehan, the Managing Director, spoke about a shift from consumers concerned with what’s on their plate to an awareness of wider social issues.

By offering a certification scheme which publically recognises a restaurant’s commitment to sustainability, the SRA is working on a similar principle to Peter Montagnon’s – improving transparency to help inform consumer choice.   

In this instance, the link between trust and ethics is understood to mean consumers’ ability to make individual purchasing choices based on freely available and reliable information. Examples include whether or not they would like to buy horsemeat or whether they would like to eat in a restaurant which sources its food locally. 

Trust: the state of being responsible for someone or something (oxforddictionaries.com) 

During the conference, other speakers alluded to a slightly different interpretation of trust.  By reflecting on public policy around health and nutrition, Dr Helen Crawley of First Steps Nutrition presented trust as embedded in a much broader notion of responsibility.

An example given was the need for education provision for new mothers around nutrition and diet; in the context of children’s centres currently closing due to lack of government funding. Helen argued that a broader responsibility for public health should incorporate these types of essential services considering the long term impacts of poor early nutrition. 

Our own Executive Director, Dan Crossley, shared a similar emphasis on public policy. Using data presented in the Square Meal Report, Dan highlighted some of the huge challenges facing the food system including food poverty, diet-related illness and a loss of biodiversity through intensive farming methods.

Whilst important for businesses to work to high ethical standards, the overall point made was this would not be sufficient on its own and that government policy would need to focus on transformative change to address these issues – even if it was not popular amongst all stakeholders. As his final point, he asked what responsibility we had for those who were not able to make decisions: for future generations;, for young people; for animals; for the environment. 

In these cases, trust implies a relationship between citizen and government where responsibility for ethical practice is given to those in leadership positions. We trust that the government will not allow us to buy products which will make us unwell or which were the products of slavery (as shown by the recent outcry over prawns). Shouldn’t we also trust that government will work to ensure that all children born in the UK are given an equal start in life and that our purchases do not contribute to the detriment of the environment? 

Final thoughts

Both of these interpretations of trust in the food system are valid. We want consumers to trust information given to them in order to make independent choices; and we trust that our leaders will ensure that all citizens (not just consumers) and the world around us do not suffer because of these choices. 

Ultimately, it will always be a balancing act and we have to trust that we, as a society, will be capable of creating a fair food system with ethical food policy at its heart.

Chloe is currently seconded to the Food Ethics Council as part of Forum for the Future’s Masters course in Leadership for Sustainable Development.