FRANCK L. B. MEIJBOOM, TATJANA VISAK, and FRANS W. A. BROM
FROM TRUST TO TRUSTWORT HINESS: WHY INFORMATION
IS NOT ENOUGH IN THE FOOD SECTOR
(Accepted in revised form August 30, 2005)
ABSTRACT. The many well-publicized food scandals in recent years have
resulted in a general state of vulnerable trust. As a result, building consumer trust
has become an important goal in agri-food policy. In their eﬀorts to protect trust
in the agricultural and food sector, governments and industries have tended to
consider the problem of trust as merely a matter of informing consumers on risks.
In this article, we argue that the food sector better addresses the problem of trust
from the perspective of the trustworthiness of the food sector itself. This broad
idea for changing the focus of trust is the assumption that if you want to be
trusted, you should be trustworthy. To provide a clear understanding of what
being trustworthy means within the food sector, we elaborate on both the concept
of trust and of responsibility. In this way we show that policy focused on
enhancing transparency and providing information to consumers is crucial, but not
suﬃcient for dealing with the problem of consumer trust in the current agri-food
KEY WORDS: food, food policy, responsibility, trust, trustworthiness
Consumer trust has received substantial attention in recent years. Several
large EU-funded research projects on consumer trust in food had been
executed (cf. Poppe and Kjaernes, 2003; Romano, 2005), national foo d
authorities as well as the European EFSA have prioritized strengthening or
rebuilding public trust as one of their core aims (e.g., FSA, 2001), and even
global organizations have began to seriously deal with issues of trust (FAO,
2003). This raises the question of why this issue gets so much attention. If we
take the growing expertise in the ﬁeld of risk analysis and assessment and
the increasing reliability of safety studies into account, one would expect the
opposite trend. A closer look at the agri-food sector, however, shows three
general characteristics that can explain why trust is still an issue in spite of
the growing expertise in the ﬁeld of risk analysis (cf. Brom, 2002).
First, we are confronted with the development and application of new
technologies, like biotechnology and more speciﬁcally genetic modiﬁcation.
Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics (2006) 19:427–442
DOI 10.1007/s10806-006-9000-2 Ó Springer 2006
These advancements yield novel products and ways of production where the
criteria of evaluation and acceptability are not clear beforehand. Moreover,
technological innovation is related to the blurring of borders between food
and medicine and the introduction of health-related novel foods that
inﬂuences the food sector.
A second development is the growing distance, in both time and space,
between production and consumption. This often co nfronts consumers with
the feeling of a loss of control of their ability of choice in food selection.
Consumers often feel dependent on practices that are out of their direct
control and, yet, are very important to them. The globalizing character of
the agricultural and food sector only conﬁrms this feeling: production of
food is often a long, anonymous process in which large-scale industry farms,
multinational processing industries, and supermarkets are involved.
Third, the food sector has been strongly associated with a number of
food-related scandals and aﬀairs, like BSE in beef, dioxins in chicken, sal-
monella in eggs, and the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. More than
once the eﬀect of these incidences on public trust has been mentioned (FAO/
WHO, 1998; FSA, 2001, p. 24; FAO, 2003). The FAO, for instance, states
that highly publicized food safety problems ‘‘have given rise to a general
state of distrust among consumers’’ (2003, p. 3).
Because of these characteristics of the sector, dealing with risk,
tainty, and igno rance have become part and parcel of everyday life. As a
consumer, one has to depend on the expertise of others, the checks and
balances within the supply chain, and ﬁrst and foremost on the goodwill of
anonymous people and institutions involved in the agri-food sector. This
highlights the importance of trust in this sector, which is a way to deal with
uncertainty and lack of personal control. As long as trust exists, the lack of
control is often not experienced, or at least not considered as an unpleasant
vulnerability. However, the increasing number of food scandals and out-
breaks of diseases have made trust vulnerable. This does not imply that
there is a crisis of conﬁdence in scientiﬁc and technological institutions in
Europe – in fact several reputable European surveys (e.g., Gaskell et al.,
2003, p. 32) have shown evidence that this is not the case – but it does show
that trust has become vulnerable. The focus, therefore, shifts to how to deal
with trust in the current agri-food sector.
In this article, we elaborate several steps that are crucial for an a ccount
that aims to address the problematic character of trust in the food
sector. First, we argue that the concept of trust deserves more elucidation.
Risk deﬁned as the ‘‘chance hazard.’’ However, in several situations the extent and
content of the risk we may face is not clear. In those cases, we have to deal with uncertainty or
even with ignorance. At uncertainty, we know that we do not know, in case of ignorance we do
not even know that we do not know. See Jasanoﬀ 2001.
FRANCK L. B. MEIJBOOM ET AL.
However, the current problem regarding consumer trust is, as we will argue,
not so much a problem of trust, but one of trustworthiness. Yet even when
focus is turned toward trustworthiness, there still remains an incomplete
picture of the problem. Since decisions on food-related risks are delegated to
responsible authori ties, like governm ent agencies and the food industries,
responsibility is a key issue in relation to both trust and trustworthiness. At
the end of the article, we focus on some implications of our analysis for agri-
2. WHAT DO WE MEAN BY TRUST?
When one tries to deﬁne the concept of trust, the diversity of prior deﬁni-
tions is striking. Shapiro has already mentioned that the considerable
attention on trust has resulted in a ‘‘confusing potpourri of deﬁnitions’’
(1987, p. 625). For instance, according to Hardi n (1993, 1996, 2002), we can
deﬁne trust as ‘‘encapsulated interest’’ in the sense that one trust s someone if
one has adequate reason to believe it will be in that person’s interest to be
trustworthy. Trust is encapsulated by one’s judgment of the interests of the
trustee. The basic premises of this rational-choice approach are that both
the trustor and the trustee are rational agents and that trust is a form of
rational calculation based upon available information. Since trust becomes
crucial in situations of risk or uncertainty, in this approach trust is seen as a
process of rational calculation in which both the trustor and the trustee aim
to maximize their interests. If you have reason to believe that it is in the
interest of your neighbor to take care of the grapes in your garden during
your holidays (he expects receiving some homemade wine at the end of the
year), then you may be more willing to trust him for this job than when you
expect him to have no personal interest at all.
However, is trust always a matter of rational considerations and inter-
ests? Othe rs, like Lahno (2001), convincingly argue that genuine trust also
has an emotional character that goes beyond the direct control of reason.
They argue that a focus on rationality does not suﬃce for completely
enlightening the concept. Trust is more than accepting a certain risk in the
sense that we decide to trust after having weighed all risks and beneﬁts. The
risks at stake, the available knowledge, and the assessments of the other’s
interest have a very complex relation with trust. On the one hand, more
information on the involved risks and interests of the other party will en-
hance the possibilities of trust. On the other hand, it is the absence or
presence of trust itself that strongly colors our perceptions of the informa-
tion on risks and interests. For instance, someone who trusts the agri-food
sector will probably perceive a large-scale recall of a product by a food
FROM TRUST TO TRUSTWORTHINESS
company as a conﬁrmation of his trust. While someone who lacks such trust
in the sector may presumably have the idea that she just escaped from
another food crisis. The same situation with the same level of available
information may be perceived completely diﬀerently. This does not entail
that trust is an intangible concept that lacks any relat ion to reﬂective
deliberation and reason, yet is shows that dealing with trust cannot be
reduced to providing information or decreasing risk levels. Trust requires
knowledge and information, but this will not automatically yield an im-
proved trust level, for trust is not something that is decided with a calculator
on our desk. Hence, if we would reduce trust to a pro blem of taking risks or
lack of knowledge, we eﬀectively eliminate trust. Trust is not just a matter of
risk reduction or dealing with the interests of others, but trust enables us to
act in cases of uncertainty and lack of personal control.
3. FROM TRUST TO FORMS OF TRUST
We engage in trusting relations daily, but trust is not the same in all situ-
ations. For example, when I trust a complete stranger to stop in front of a
stop sign, I have diﬀerent incentives and diﬀerent vulnerabilities than when I
trust my GP in prescribing me medicine. Nevertheless, in both situations, we
speak about trust. To prevent ‘‘trust’’ from becoming an all-embracing
concept that wi ll be next to meaningless, it is advisable to diﬀerentiate
between diﬀerent types of trust (see Hollis, 1998; Sztompka, 1999). We may
separate at least two general types of trust: ‘‘anticipatory trust’’ and
3.1. Anticipatory Trust
Anticipatory trust is the kind of trust in which someone trusts the other
since one expects him or her to act routinely. It is the normal pattern of
behavior that forms the foundation for trust. The main element in the
(implicit) decision to trust is the analogy between the present case and
former cases in which the other has acted in a trustworthy way. A pre-
condition for this type is that there is a kind of predictive pattern. This
predictive element can be based upon speciﬁc human relations. For instance,
I trust my friend to wear a suit when I invite him to my reception since he
At this point we use Sztompka (1999, pp. 27–29). Sztompka also speaks about the evocative
character of trust. This type is, however, not very illuminating in the ﬁeld of agriculture and
food. All aspects of this evocative trust that apply to our speciﬁc ﬁeld of interest are also
covered by responsive trust. For an analogous distinction see also Hollis (1998, pp. 10–11), who
distinguishes predictive trust (trust that the other will do the same as usual) and normative trust
(trust that the other will do what is right).
FRANCK L. B. MEIJBOOM ET AL.
always does so. I know his behavior and expect him to act as usual. Such
predictable patterns also can explain why one can trust brands even if one is
abroad. Although one does not have any relation or experience with a shop
in a foreign city, one will enter a superm arket and buy the products of this
brand, since one trusts that the safety and quality of the product with this
brand is like everywhere else. The consumer’s (positive) experiences with this
brand elsewhere, provide him wi th en ough ground to trust the products in
The vulnerability of this kind of trust is that predictable patterns make
someone or something reliable, but not automatically trustworthy. One
always runs the risk that this is the ﬁrst time the other will not act in the
3.2. Responsive Trust
The predicative pattern that is presupposed by anticipatory trust is prob-
lematic in many situations in the current agri-food sector. First, and obvi-
ously, there is a lack of normal patterns. For instance, with the introduction
of a new technology in food production, we have to trust others that the
products of that technology are safe and meet certain standards of quality.
However, in such a situation we cannot rely on the usual way of dealing with
these products, since there is not a normal pattern available concerning this
new technology. Second, in some situations the normal pattern of behavior
is not en ough for trust. For instance, the normal clothing of my friend
provides me eno ugh ground to rely on him to come in a suit to my reception;
yet when there is an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease I do not expect my
government to be merely predictable, but also to actively use their compe-
tence and take responsibilities for the situation.
Nevertheless, when there is no normal pattern and when the normal
pattern is not enough ground for trusting, trust is still possibl e. Yet, we had
then better use the term ‘‘responsive trust.’’ With responsi ve trust, it is no
longer predictability that is central in a trusting relation, but it is the so-
called ‘‘tacit demand of trust’’ (Løgstrup, 1959; Lagerspetz, 1998). The
trustor presupposes that the trustee has not merely the ability to accept
responsibility, but the trustee feels an obligation to respond to the trust
placed in her. In this case, the trustor not only expects that the trustee
respond in her acting on the object entrusted her, but also expects it of him
(Hollis, 1998). She expects the trustee not to act routinely, but to respect and
respond to the expectations the other has of us. Therefore, when one is
trusted, the trustee should not merely act the same as usual, but should
recognize the tacit demand of trust and do what is expected of him.
This expectation often has a moral dimension. For instance, regarding
FROM TRUST TO TRUSTWORTHINESS
government, I do not only expect that they take care for an adequate food
system, I also expect it of them. I believe that they have a moral duty to do
so and that I am entitled to expect this. In this case, trust entails a moral
notion, namely an obligation to respond in the entrusted way.
The main vulnerability of responsive trust is that presupposed shared
moral values do not necessarily lead to trust. Shared values do not lead
automatically to the same norms. For instance, all participants in the food
chain, the governm ent included, share the values of human health and well-
being. However, this does not solve all of the problems concerning trust in
relation to the health and safety impact of genetically engineered food
immediately. The problems do not start in the complete absence of shared
values, but in the uncertainty concerning the way of tailoring the shared
values to speciﬁc standards concerning the safety and health impact of GM-
foods. Responsive trust remains problematic and vulnerable as long as it is
not clear what the implication of the shared values will be. Therefore,
building responsive trust is not only a matter of transparency concerning the
values at stake, but it also impl ies a clear discussion of how these shared
values are applied in relation to the object of trust.
Anticipatory and responsive trust may coincide in speciﬁc trusting
relationships. However, this distinction may serve as a step in mapping the
important aspects of trust. Moreover, the distinction between these two
aspects of trust seems to be useful for exploring the role and content of
4. FROM TRUST TO TRUSTWORTHINESS
Returning to the food-safety debate, consumer trust seems a necessity for a
well-operating agri-food sector. This could lead one to believe that one has
to start at the point of the consumer: he seems the one who should change in
one way or another before he can trust. If we approach the problem from
this point, regaining consumer trust turns into something next to a mission
impossible. You cannot make others trust you. This, however, does not
imply that consumer trust is an unmanageable problem. It shows that we
had better approach the issue from the question of why a consumer would
trust someone else. If we do so, we notice that trust raises the question
whether the other person is worth being trusted. This emphasizes that lack
of trust is a problem of the one who want s to be trusted rather than of the
trustor. The problem of consumer trust is at least partly caused by the
uncertainty regarding the trustworthiness of other stakeholders in the sector
and by the lack of clarity regarding what one may reasonably expect from
FRANCK L. B. MEIJBOOM ET AL.
This highlights the importance of trustworthiness. Consumer trust
should not merely be addressed as a problem related to consumer behavior,
but as one of trustworthiness: he who wants to be trusted should be trust-
worthy. Enhancing trustworthiness, therefore, seems a more promising
starting point in the process of regaining consumer trust.
This raises the question of how to be trustworthy. Transparency and
traceability are often seen as key terms for being trustworthy (e.g., FSA,
2001). When we apply the above analysis of trust this seems, at least to a
certain extent, reasonable. In a situation of anticipatory trust being trust-
worthy is mainly a matter of acting predictably. One has proved oneself
trustworthy in former cases and now has to maintain the actual situation.
And here transparency and traceability are necessary characteristics for
proving oneself trustworthy. You aim to enable the other person to antic-
ipate based on your former actions in order to show yourself as trustworthy
in this case as well. Showing what you are doing and the way in which you
are acting are of the utmost importance. For instance, as long as a consumer
trusts the government to have appropriate food-safety legislation, being
trustworthy for a government requires no more than continually showing in
legislation and policy that this trust is justiﬁed.
However, being transparent is not always enough to be trustworthy.
Even immoral persons can be predictable and hence can be very transparent,
yet not trustworthy. For instance, a totalitarian regime may be very trans-
parent towards their subjects and follow clear patterns, yet this will not
make them trustworthy. This shows that sheer predictability and trans-
parency are insuﬃcient for trustworthiness in cases where a trust relation-
ship has to be started. If trust is under pressure or even lost, being
trustworthy becomes a matter of building and obtaining trust.
In the discussion of responsive trust, we have seen that building trust also
requires a clear discussion of one’s own values and the application of these
values in relat ion to the object of trust. Being trustworthy in this context is
not merely showing what you are doing and how you are acting, but also
clarifying why you are doing it: what are the values upon which you act and
what does acting on these values mean in this situation? For both govern-
ment and companies this implies that one has to explicate one’s own norms
and values and explain what acting on these values means in a certain
In short, being trustworthy cannot be limited to increasing transparency
and providing information to consumers. Taken together, the complex
character of interactions in the agri-food sector and the relative quickness of
the developments resul t in a situation in which being trustworthy requires
something beyond transparency. Hence, dealing with consumer trust in the
case of food also requires the explication of values upon which one acts.
FROM TRUST TO TRUSTWORTHINESS
This enables the trustor to get a clear indication of what one can reasonably
expect of the other. Clarity regarding these exp ectations is crucial for trust,
for trusting implies that the one who trusts expects the other to take her
responsibilities seriously. This highlights the importance of another aspect
related to trustworthiness: responsibility (Figure 1).
5. RESPONSIBILITY: M ORE THAN THE QUESTION ‘‘WHO
IS TO BLAME?’’
A food scandal, a case of BSE, or an occurrence of foot-and-mouth disease
are all cases in which trust surfaces as a possible problem. However, they
have more in common. These are all also situations in which one of the ﬁrst
questions is ‘‘Who is responsi ble?’’ The answer to this question is often less
obvious. In analyzing debates on the distribution of responsibilities in the
agri-food chain, it is striking that each part of the food chain tries to lay
responsibility on another part of the chain. Producers justify disputable
methods of production, for instance regarding animal welfare, by pointing
towards economic pressure and towards the con sumers that still buy the
products. Consumers point to the diﬀerence in prices and the responsibility
of the government. Politicians emphasize the responsibility of producers,
and so on, until a deadlock is reached.
This begging of responsibilities does not contribute to any form of
trustworthiness. Tr usting implies that the trust or expects that the trustee
Trustworthiness means anticipatory responsive
providing information trust trust
–Transparency of pattern – Transparency in decisions
Figure 1. Shift from trustworthiness as providing information to a more multilay-
ered analysis of trustworthiness.
FRANCK L. B. MEIJBOOM ET AL.
takes her responsibilities seri ously. As long as the content, the distribution,
and the limits of these responsibilities remain unclear, trust will become
vulnerable and trustworthiness will remain rare. Therefore, an elaboration
of responsibilities is necessary at this point, especially since there is a ten-
dency to equate the question ‘‘Who is responsible?’’ automatically with the
very speciﬁc question ‘‘Who is to blame?’’ It is, of course, legitimate to use
responsibility in referring to liability; in the case that a certain food product
is poisoned, there will be someone or some institution that can be held
morally or legally responsible and can be blamed or even legally punished
for what happened.
Responsibility in the context of trustworthiness, however, is much richer
than liability. Responsibility in this richer sense is not limited to a causal
relationship between a certain act and the result thereof. In the case that
consumers fall ill through consuming poisoned food, the one who is
responsible is not only the person that makes the actual mistake in the
production system that poisons the food, but also many other participants
in the chain, including the government. For instance, a National Food
Standards agency may not have caused the poisoned food in this case, but
nevertheless they may be held responsible. This highlights that we may have
reasonable expectations towards others even when they are not responsi ble
in the sense that they have caused the undesirable situation. We can hold
someone responsible by referring to a certain role or agreement that the
person has accepted. In the agri-food sector, this plays a crucial role. For
instance, agreements have been made concerning the reduction of nitrates in
animal husbandry. Due to these agreements, we have reasonable expecta-
tions of farmers that they take responsibility to cope with maximum limits
of environmental pollution.
This distinction between causal responsibility and role responsibility ﬁt
the two types of responsibility that are distinguished by Jonas (1984). He
distinguishes between ‘‘ex-post-facto’’ responsibility (reactive responsibility)
and ‘‘pro-active responsibility.’’ Next to reactive responsibility, which is
closely related to the question regarding blameworthiness, we can distin-
guish a pro-active responsi bility. Both types of responsibility are deﬁnable
by starting point, direction, and perspective.
5.1. Starting Point
Reactive responsibility has its starting point in a certain state of aﬀairs;
something, usually unpleasant, that has happened. The question ‘‘Who is
responsible?’’ is then often equal to the question ‘‘Who is to blame?’’ Pro-
active responsibility, in contrast, starts from the actor himself. An actor
might make a commitment to the realization of some valued state of aﬀairs.
FROM TRUST TO TRUSTWORTHINESS
Consequently, she will adapt her behavior to such an ideal.
For instance, a
farmer may make a commitment to the welfare of her animals and treat
them in accordance to this commitment. In such a case, she is not merely
responsible when something happens regarding the health of her livestock,
but she also wants to be held responsible regarding her commitment.
The diﬀerences between both types of responsibility can also be recognized
at the level of the direction of responsibility. Reactive responsibility is
backward looking. After something has happened, actions are evaluated in
order to ﬁgure out who is to blame. Pro-active responsibility, on the other
hand, is forward directed. The responsibility an actor feels for an ideal
inﬂuences his future actions, the actor uses an ideal as a compass to choose
between alternative actions. The responsibility is directed towards the future
and strives towards a state of aﬀairs that is considered as valuable. Those
values or ideals can be linked to fundame ntal questions such as ‘‘In what
kind of world would we like to live?’’ or ‘‘How do we want to treat each
other, animals, and nature? ’’ Having these ideals and views on the good life
directly inﬂuences one’s view on what one considers as one’s responsibility.
A third diﬀerence is the perspective. The concept of reactive responsibility
goes togeth er with the outside perspective. After something has happened,
people try to ﬁnd out who is to be held responsi ble; the responsibility is
ascribed to an actor from the outside. The inner perspective is central to the
concept of pro-active responsibility: the actor himself determines his values,
aims, and responsibilities. Therefore, responsibility is not just what is at
stake when something has gone wrong, it can equally be based upon an ideal
or value that someone thinks to be worth striving for.
With these distinctions, we have made a ﬁrst step. However, it is still
unclear how responsibilities should be explicated and distributed. By
including pro-act ive responsibility in the an alysis of what one can reason-
ably expect of others, it becomes clear that responsibility is more than a
backward-looking concept. This is crucial in approaching the questions
regarding trust and trustworthiness. Backward looking or reactive respon-
sibility suﬃces as long as the predictability of a situation provides enough
ground for trust. If not, backward-looking responsibility does not suﬃce,
since the moment that the question ‘‘Who is responsible?’’ is asked, trust
Ideals are deﬁned as values (often latent and implicit) in the law or the public and moral
culture of a society or group. Mostly those values cannot be fully realized and they partly
extend any rules that can be formulated and formalized, see Burg and Taekema, 2004.
FRANCK L. B. MEIJBOOM ET AL.
might have already been harmed. The information about someone’s pro-
active responsibility and the values that underlie this responsibility provide
possibilities to trust, and consequently to be trustworthy even in situations
when one cannot rely on predictability.
6. RESPONSIBILITY: MINIMAL OR IDEAL?
Enhancing trustworthiness requires a clear distribution of responsibility.
Without aiming to determine exactly what the responsibility of each actor in
the food chain should be, it is possible to provide a tool to facilitate dis-
cussion and agreement about the distribution of responsibilities. Following
the distinction between the reactive and proactive perspective, we can dis-
tinguish between two standar ds of respon sibility: a minimal and an ideal
Minimal responsibility implies that taking one’s responsibility seri ously
means that one does no more than obeying the minimal standards that have
been set as obligatory by law, a code of practice, or social convention. Seen
from the reactive perspective, one is only to blame when one has not obeyed
the minimal standards. This interpretation of responsibility is often a nec-
essary ﬁrst step if someone is to be valued as a trustworthy partner in the
sector. One can count on the behavior of the other, since he will at least
comply with the minimal standard. An example of this minimal respon si-
bility is the case in which a farmer has a responsibility towards the envi-
ronment in the sense that she should comply with the legally ﬁxed level of
ammonia emission. She has taken her responsibility seriously as long as she
does not exceed the maximum emission level.
Responsibility can also be addressed from an ideal view. This goes be-
yond what is strictly necessary in order to avoid moral or legal blame. In this
interpretation, the question whether or not one is responsible is not just
answered by a third party or an external standard, but by one’s own ideals
or values. Responsibility in this sense is related to a state of aﬀairs that one
regards as valuable and worth striving for. This makes responsibility ideal in
the sense that it is acti on-guiding without becoming utopian. It is not uto-
pian, since the ideals can be a motivation to move in a certain direction
(Figure 2). The attainability of ideals might diﬀer, but at least they can serve
as a co mpass that helps to move in the preferred direction. This does not
mean that each member of the food chain has to do everything possible in
order to enhance his ideal. Thoreau (1983, p. 32) describes the limit s of
responsibility accurately when he states, ‘‘It is not a man’s duty as a matter
of course to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enor-
mous wrong (...) but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he
FROM TRUST TO TRUSTWORTHINESS
gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support.’’ That
means that from all the choices the actors in the food chain have to make
anyway, they avoid the choices that have bad consequences for the cause
they consider valuable. For instance, a farmer striving for trustworthiness
should explicate his ideals on how to treat animals and should avoid actions
that are contrary to that ideal, even if these actions are not legally imposed.
This distinction provides us with an instrument for dealing with ques-
tions concerning the distribution of responsibilities in the food chain. It can
help in clarifying what one may reasonably expect of the other, which is
crucial for any possibility of trust. Moreover, the distinction has normative
power. Ideal responsibility shows that we sometimes have expectations to-
wards others that are appropriate and justiﬁed, yet go beyond the minimal
standard. In spite of the fact that the demanding character of such an
expectation gets weaker the further we are removed from the minimal
standard, it remains possible and appropriate to hold someone responsible.
Even when one has taken one’s responsibility in a minimal sense, one can
argue that he should have chosen to act in another, more desirable way.
From the perspective of trustworthiness, this can be helpful, since taking
one’s responsibility only in a minimal sense is not enough to be trustworthy
in a changing food sector. Just doing what is legally obliged oﬀers not
enough ground to trust someone in a changing and complex situation.
7. TRUST AND TRUSTWORT HINESS IN FOOD POLICY
Now we may turn to the implications of the above-mentioned steps for
governmental food policy. Suppose government is confronted with con-
sumer distrust regarding the safety and quality of pork after a case of swine
fever. Applying the above analysis implies that the ﬁrst question is not
Questionwho reactive pro-active
is to blame? responsibility responsibility
minimal minimal ideal
Figure 2. Responsibility shifts to a view where both reactive responsibility and
pro-active responsibility are introduced.
FRANCK L. B. MEIJBOOM ET AL.
‘‘How can we convince consumers to trust the proven safety of this meat?’’
but ‘‘Why would the consumer trust us in this situation?’’ The ﬁrst step is
the recognition that dealing with this problem means dealing with questions
regarding trustworthiness. A governm ent cannot change consumer trust, yet
has a direct inﬂuence on its own trustworthiness as well as an indirect
inﬂuence on the trustworthiness of the sector in its entirety.
The second step is addressing the question regarding the status of trust in
this speciﬁc situation: Is it a situation of anticipatory trust that should be
protected, or has trust a rather vulnerable position, implying that it should
be earned? The answer to this question in the above case is quite clear. Trust
seems to be in a vulnerable position and the predictability of the case fails to
serve as its ground. This means that transparency and traceability regarding
the food safety and food quality are in this case only the ﬁrst preliminary
steps. One should not only explicate what one is doing regarding safety and
quality, but also clarifying why one is doing it: What are the values upon
which one acts and what does acting on these values mean in this situation?
For both government and companies, this implies that one has to explicate
one’s own norms and values and what acting on these values means in
certain contexts. Consumers are not only concerned about safety in terms of
risk to public health, but equally about the way in which both government
and the food sector formulate a policy to prevent this from happening again,
about the consequen ces for animal welfare, and the future of intensive
husbandry systems and so on. In the practice of the above case, explicating
values and norms can mean that a government has to explicate its norms
and values regarding animal welfare or certain food-production systems.
These explications may have a spin-oﬀ in elaborating good corporate gov-
ernance and in furthering open and critical discussion with all who are
involved in the food chain.
Based upon the analysis of the status of trust and a further explication of
the underlying values upon which one acts, it should become clear what the
citizen/consumer may reasonably expect of government and the sector. The
issue of responsibility comes in at this moment. Concerning this issue,
government has a double role. First, government has a responsibility con-
cerning its own actions and, second, it has a task in stimulating others, like
producers and consumers, to take responsibilities. In a minimal sense, this
means, in the above case, that the government develops and enforces
standards concerning food safety that provide the basic quality of stan-
dards. Further, a government provides clarity concerning what the minimal
responsibility of, for instance, producers is. Policies and laws strictly clarify
what is necessary in order to avoid legal blame. Responsibility in an ideal
sense implies that a government expresses and reﬂects on its values and
ideals. W hen, for instance, sustainable development in agriculture and food
FROM TRUST TO TRUSTWORTHINESS
supply is a target of governmental policy, this should also inﬂuence gov-
ernmental responsibility in dealing with the above-sketched case of food
safety. Further, a government can stimulate other partners, e.g., companies,
to take their ideal responsibility.
At this point, the distinction between ‘‘corporate social responsibility’’
and ‘‘corporate social responsiveness’’ (see Wood, 1991, p. 694; Pierick
et al., 2004) is clarifying. Corporate responsibility – in the sense of expli-
cating ethical principles and values or underscoring an ethical code – is an
essential condition for being trustworthy, yet it is not a suﬃcient one.
Considering a partner in the agri-food sector trustworthy requires not only
some kind of reﬂection and explication of one’s norms and values, but also
the deliberative attitude to explain and engage in critical discussion on these
principles and their impac t: i.e., responsiveness. The combination of
responsibility and responsiveness is necessary and prevents us from a situ-
ation in which either principled commitments remain only words, or
apparently responsive partners remai n irresponsible and consequently are
still untrustworthy. Therefore, taking one’s responsibility seriously only
leads to trustworthiness if it is a combination of both reﬂection and
responsiveness. It is part of a government’s ideal responsibility to stimulate
this combination of responsibility and responsiveness.
Stating that trustworthiness means explicating responsibilities does not
imply that g overnments should take all responsibilities that are forced on it
by others. Even in taking ideal responsibility, a government can reasonably
argue that there are limits to its responsibility. Only in this way can a
government live up to the expectations and remain a trustworthy partner.
Returning to the above case, a trustworthy gove rnment is not just a
transparent government that only gives information regarding the involved
risks, but it is one that is able to form ulate and explicate what a consumer/
citizen may reasonably expect of a government in this situation and why.
This is not an all-problem-solving strategy. Due to the evident moral plu-
ralism in most Western societies, a discussion of the values, and of the
distribution and interpretation of responsibilities will not automatically lead
to trust. Yet, clarity about what a consumer/citizen may reasonably expect
of a government shows how trustworthy a government is and provides a
better ground for trusting.
In this paper, we have argued that a fruitful approach of the current dis-
cussion regarding consumer trust is not one that considers the problem as
related to consumer behavior, but one that starts from the trustworthiness
FRANCK L. B. MEIJBOOM ET AL.
of the food sector itself , including the government. The above analysis of
trust shows that if you want to be trusted , you should be trustworthy. We
have argued that trustworthiness is more than being transparent and implies
more than providing information. Both are necessary, but are not suﬃcient.
Since trust is an emotional attitude, providing information is often only half
the story of coming to be trusted. Moreover, because of the dynamism in the
agri-food sector, trust is not the same in every situation. Hence, an analysis
of the status of trust is required: Is it to be protected or to be earned?
Especially in the last case, people do not merely want to know what one is
doing, but also why. It is at this stage that the need for explication of the
values and ideals that underlie one’s acting will become apparent and the
importance of a clear distribution and interpretation of responsibilities
This leads us to the over-all conclusion that being trustworthy in the
current agri-food context cannot be without reﬂection on and explication of
one’s values. This process of reﬂection and the subsequent discussion should
not be considered as a simple tool that provides us with a situation in which
trust is completely unproblematic, yet it certainly helps in providing trust
with a less vulnerable position in the current agri-food sector.
This article has been based upon research funded by the Netherlands
Ministry of Agriculture, Nature, and Food Quality in the context of artic-
ulating research issues. Parts of this paper have been discussed during the
International Expert Meeting on ‘‘Trust and Responsibility in the Agro-
food Sector’’ in Utrecht, 27 Septem ber 2002 and the Fourth Congress of
the European Society for Agricultural and Food Ethics (EurSafe), Tou-
louse 20–22 March 2003. We want to thank all participants for their con-
tributions. Special thanks are due to Robert Heeger and Benjamin
Radelet for their helpful criticisms of earlier drafts.
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Franck L. B. Meijboom
NL-3584 CS UTRECHT
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FRANCK L. B. MEIJBOOM ET AL.