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The role of trust in the perception of the quality of local food products: with particular reference to direct relationships between producer and consumer

Anne-Hélène Prigent-Simonin and Catherine Hérault-Fournier


This research examines how the quality of food products is perceived when there is a direct relationship between the producer and consumer. It attempts to throw light on the way that customer-intimacy links are forged or restored between these two participants in the chain and draws a parallel with the more standard distribution channels. The goal is more precisely to study the influence of direct relationship on consumers’ perception of food quality. To address these issues we have selected two different areas according to the type of relationship developed: the farmer-to-consumer sale of beef that emerged after the BSE crisis and promotional events in the supermarkets organized by chicken farmers. The results show that the relational dimension does influence the qualification process of food products, and that this influence is closely linked to the components of trust emerging from the relationship.

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1Over the last ten years, the agri-food sector has been affected by a series of incidents and crises that have revealed just how complex this sector is to consumers. New risk, safety and quality related demands have thus emerged, leading economic and institutional parties to redefine foodstuff production and marketing methods1. In this area there is an increasing activity by public authorities (official quality labels) and private initiatives in the distribution sector (quality systems, supermarkets’ own “local produce” brands). Whilst such labels for identifying the quality and origin of farm and food products are developing, new forms of trade between the producer and consumer are also emerging simultaneously (direct producer-to-consumer sales, farmers’ markets, CSA2, etc.) showing that the participants are following a converging trend that cannot simply be considered as an economic transaction. These new forms of trade represent a new type of social contract between consumers seeking reassurance and producers seeking legitimacy. On market stalls, the pumpkins suddenly look fuller, the meat seems more tender and the wine smoother3, as if the fact that they come directly from the producer gives them a different or specific quality.

2In this contribution, we shall attempt to understand how the relational dimension contributes in part to the notion of quality, alongside the other dimensions that are more frequently mentioned: nutritional and health value, functional and organoleptic qualities, etc. Using three case studies – the direct sale of beef, Anjou wine and promotional events organized in hypermarkets by the producers of red-label poultry – we will analyze in detail, the main components of trust emerging within customer intimacy-links and their role in the qualification process of food products.

3Firstly we shall provide details of the theoretical framework for the study in order to identify what contributes to the quality of a foodstuff for different players. Secondly, we shall present the methodological choices we made; and thirdly, we shall show that direct relationships between producers and consumers are varied and explain how they develop to become trust devices. Finally, we shall conclude by considering the impact of these relationships on the conceptualization of food quality.

The relational dimension of quality: the theoretical framework and objectives of the study

4To clarify the concept of relationship-linked quality, we must describe the theoretical framework we used for our research. We will give details here of what we mean by a direct “producer-to-consumer relationship” and by “quality of food products”. This will enable us to envisage the mechanisms consumers use to assess the quality of food products and to emphasize the role played by trust in the qualification process of food products.

Direct relationship as a meeting point

5During the past decade, a lot of research has focused on the exploration of new types of adjustment to the market that have emerged and operated, more particularly by studying how they are embedded in the social environment4. In this study we will not cover the way in which these “customer intimacy” relationships are set up between producers and consumers, but instead we will focus on the components of the relationship. The direct relationship we envisage here is first and foremost based on a meeting between a producer and a consumer at a point of sale, whether the meeting takes place in a market, on a farm, at a trade fair or at a promotional event in a supermarket or hypermarket. This deliberately simplified definition of the relationship is justified by the fact that our goal was to pay special attention to the types of relationship observed and to demonstrate the variety and specificity of the three case studies. Although we are aware of a considerable body of research in the Social Sciences into the relationships between the players, there are very few reports on specific types of producer-to-consumer relationships. We have therefore chosen to propose our own framework to describe and understand these relationships in order to consider their contribution to the conceptualization of food quality.

Quality: a multidimensional concept

6Over the past thirty years, many definitions of the quality of food products have been suggested by sociologists, economists and marketers as well as by the agro-food industry producers. Above all, quality is often viewed as a way to ensure that a product is safe for consumers. For others, quality refers to “the capacity of a product/service to satisfy a set of user expectations” (AFNOR, 1982) which are very varied: hygienic, nutritional, organoleptic (Sylvander, 2002).

7All these definitions of quality leave plenty of room for subjective interpretation and show how complex the concept is. Indeed, the quality of food can be described as a multidimensional piece of data. Intrinsic data relating to the product itself is thus combined with more symbolic data calling upon beliefs and the imagination. According to Cazes-Valette (2001), seven distinct facets could be distinguished to define quality (Cf. Figure 1). Nutritional quality is the food’s overall contribution to a balanced diet. Its hygienic quality means that it contains no harmful or toxic substance and is therefore supposedly good for your health. Over the last few years the consumer has become increasingly focused on whether the product is practical to purchase, handle, transport, prepare and use, so functional properties have now become an increasingly valued dimension for consumers in the western world. The organoleptic quality is related to the sensory pleasure or displeasure that the product procures when it is picked, purchased or eaten. Food also has a social dimension; the way we select, cook or eat food enables us to position ourselves in terms of belonging to a group or in relation to a reference group. These are known as social qualities. A food should also be on the list of eatable products as defined by the consumer’s cultural background. This will define the symbolic quality of the product. Finally, some consumers today expect their food to be grown using environmentally friendly practices (products from organic farming or less intensive farming) or permitting the farmers to be paid a fair price (fair trade, for example). These new demands can be grouped together under the humanistic quality of the food product.

Figure 1: The different components of food quality - Les différentes facettes de la qualité d’un aliment.

Cazes-Valettes, 2001.

8These different dimensions can be grouped together into two main categories, those that relate to the generic quality of the products and those that are more connected to their specific quality. The general consensus is that the evaluation of the generic quality of a food product is largely dependent on its healthiness and nutritional value. The main issue for the producer is to ensure this level of quality since the consumer considers it as essential5.

9Sylvander, Porin et Mainsant (1998) draw a distinction between two types of specific properties:

  • those that consumers can identify and assess with their sensory capacities (taste, practicality of the product)

  • those that the producer claims, but that consumers cannot check themselves (race, raised in the open air, organic, traditional, “local produce”, animal welfare, traceable)

10Quality of food is an extremely rich concept and its multiple dimensions do not make the comprehension of consumers’ choices easy. Indeed, different consumer groups will focus on different quality features. Today, several qualification devices have been set up by public authorities, industrialists and producers to help them to identify quality products.

Judgment devices

11A consumer seeking to assess the quality of a food product can first of all refer to a series of indicators, such as: an official quality label, the brand or even the price, or the store. The consumer can also choose not to reason in terms of a quality indicator and use people or organizations instead (advertiser, producer, sales assistant, close relations who know about the product, etc.) (Sirieix et Morrot, 2001). According to Karpik (1996), “the exchange of goods or services rarely depends on only one qualification device: a network may double the impersonal mechanisms”.

12We have drawn a clear distinction between two categories of judgment device. The impersonal devices: quality labels, brands, guide books, awards, diplomas and medals - these have a marked impact on decreasing the difficulties consumers have to face when making a choice, although they do not solve the problem completely. Making a choice involves calling upon another set of criteria to assess the offer: personal mechanisms. In this case, useful information will be actively sought from people who are close: friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances. Personal devices tend to be all the more important if there is no public information system. In this case, individuals cannot identify the true properties of the product. The personal approach dissipates the consumer’s doubts and allows players to become involved in the relationship with trust.

13For Karpik (1996) trust is a “practical operator that supports the delegation relationship”. Qualification devices systematically appear as trust devices.

Trust: credibility, integrity and benevolence

14Trust is a complex concept that has elicited the interest of many researchers over the past years, to the extent that it is now often considered as one of the key variables in the success and stability of trading partnerships. However, two complementary approaches of trust seem to be recurrent : the first is related to knowledge based on facts acquired over a period of time and the second is the effect of a mysterious force that compensates for the fact that knowledge is and always will be limited: belief. Trust will take root in a composite system combining knowledge and beliefs. In other words “No trust without belief”6.

15Hence, three major dimensions associated with trust can be distinguished: competence, honesty and altruism according to Hess (1995). Gurviez (1999) still refers to them as: credibility, integrity and benevolence.

16The credibility that individuals grant their trading partners is based on the belief that the latter has the know-how and the skills required to reach their goals and carry out an assignment with efficiency and accountability (Ganesan, 1994; Guibert, 1999). This aspect of trust has a cognitive orientation in the sense that it is based on the reputation of a supplier, especially in terms of quality and price (positive word of mouth, advertising, etc.) and is reinforced when positive purchasing and consumption occur (satisfaction, familiarity, etc.). This belief in the partner’s capabilities is built upon the basis of proof that has been gathered directly or indirectly.

17The partner’s integrity or honesty is mainly related to his goodwill to respect his commitment. “Integrity is attributing loyal motivations to the partner as regards his commitment to fulfilling the pledge he has made to respect the terms of trade”7.

18Benevolence is often qualified as the emotional component of trust in the sense that it is based on a feeling or a vague impression founded on human emotions rather than an evaluation based on different sets of information. For Mac Allister (1996), emotional trust is not related to an economic transaction alone; it also reveals an emotional link between two people. For Coleman (1990), this form of trust is based on the partners’ identity. It contributes to the development of a feeling of attachment, identification and ties between the partners (emotional commitment).

19Our main concern and motivation here is to understand how trust devices emerging from direct relationships between a producer and a consumer contribute to the conceptualization of quality food products. Is it possible to talk about a new dimension of food quality, describing it as the quality of the product, in the same way as the seven previously mentioned facets: nutritional, hygienic quality, social, humanistic, symbolic, functional and organoleptic?

20This research is mainly descriptive and as such is not based on constructing testable hypotheses but on studying the relevance of three proposals:

  • When the producer and the consumer meet, the quality of food products is conceptualized differently by the players.

  • The effect of the relationship on perceived quality is based on the emergence of trust between the player.

  • The effect of the relationship differs depending on the specific features of the product and the context.

Methodology of the study

21To examine this subject we chose to observe three cases of food products that have created a direct link between producers and consumers. Each case was observed through a partnership with a Pays de la Loire8 company or institution:

  • direct sale of beef from the farm, in partnership with a farmers’ cooperative that provides services (slaughterhouse and cutting up carcasses) to the farmers who sell their products direct to the customer and also runs a home delivery service to supply beef to private customers.

  • direct sale of wine in partnership with a wine producers’ professional organization that covers the trade associations of the Anjou Saumur watershed.

  • promotional events organized by red-label poultry farmers in a hypermarket in cooperation with a farmers’ cooperative society that supervises one of the most prominent French quality labels.

22Our investigation method was exclusively qualitative. Therefore, for each of these areas of study, we carried out a case study, some participative observations and interviews with the involved parties.

23During the first phase of the case studies we met the key people9 in each of the partner companies. This allowed us to improve our understanding of how the direct relationship had emerged and to collect information concerning the management’s point of view on how the two parties had become involved in building this relationship.

24During the second stage we used participative observations of the different types of relationships we had defined to improve our understanding of the underlying logic on which they were based, from both the consumers’ and producers’ standpoint. Three days were devoted to observations in each case study to identify how the relationship operated, the people involved, the type of exchange and the rules applied.

25The third and final phase of investigation was based on semi-directed interviews carried out from November 2003 to March 2004 with 50 producers and 80 consumers. The 50 producers (27 wine growers, 16 poultry farmers and 7 beef breeders) were interviewed on their farms. Each interview lasted one hour on average, was recorded, transcribed and subjected to a contents analysis. This method left considerable freedom for the participants to express themselves and appeared to be the most suitable approach for understanding the meaning of these relationships for consumers and producers. For the 49 consumers of beef and the 9 wine consumers, the investigation conditions were similar. Because of the specificity of the context (promotional events in a hypermarket) the interviews of the 22 red-label poultry consumers were shorter and more controlled. Indeed, it was not possible to record their comments.

The relational dimension of quality

26The description of the way the observed relationships had emerged, the current market situation and especially the features of the product in question, suggest that a relationship between producer and consumer cannot be defined in only one way. To better understand their plurality, we have chosen to describe them from a dual standpoint taking into consideration their intensity, to be characterized using observable indicators, and their content that to be observed through participants’ experiences.

Producer-consumer relationships: a variable intensity

27The intensity of the relationship expresses in a way the “consistency”, or “density” of the meeting. This is envisaged here through four indicators: the number of meetings, their frequency, the duration of the meeting and lastly whether or not the involved parties talked to each other.

28It is possible to position the producer-consumer relationships observed on a scale expressing the level of interactivity between them. The lowest intensity describes one brief meeting during which neither party spoke. This situation was observed mostly at promotional events organized by the red-label poultry farmers.

29The strongest intensity, on the other hand, describes many, regular meetings, giving rise to long discussions.

30This first intensity factor suggests that relationships are highly variable, extending beyond the segmentation we made through the three case studies (farmer-to-consumer sale of beef, grower-to-consumer sale of wine and supermarket promotional events organized by poultry farmers).

31This very broad range leads us to wonder about the necessity of finding a more precise definition of the relationship concept. Should we define a “minimum” interaction needed in order to understand its contribution to food quality? Instead, we felt that it was important both to take into account the intensity of the relationship as an explanatory variable, considering that it may change in time, and to consider these relationships beyond their intensity level, analyzing all the components of the relationship from the standpoint of the parties involved.

The components of the relationship

32In order to describe the observed relationships, we chose to analyze the way the consumers and producers define them. Five components seem to interact in the interviews we conducted.

The trading dimension

33When a consumer acquires goods or services for a sum of money fixed by the market, an instantaneous bilateral trading operation takes place and the terms of the operation are agreed beforehand, so we can consider that the relationship between the players has a trading dimension. This dimension was expressed by the consumers and producers we surveyed who mainly referred to the prior agreement of the terms of the exchange when they described the contents of the relationship; in their opinion, it is particularly advantageous in comparison to other types of trade. First of all, the price is attractive: “It costs less than in a supermarket”, the product has advantageous functional properties: “In its package it’s perfect. All you have to do is pop it in the freezer”. For the producers, there are also economic advantages, as they make a better profit margin. “We sell almost twice or three times more expensive than we do to the trade”. Through the trading dimension, the interests of the parties, or at least the feeling that they are gaining something in this type of operation is the basis of the relationship.

The cognitive dimension

34A direct producer-to-consumer relationship is also an opportunity to exchange knowledge. For many consumers it is a way to learn more about products (breed, grape variety, etc.) or to learn about production methods (how the animals are fed, how they are reared, wine-making techniques, etc.): “We get our information concerning the breed of animal, the type of meat directly from the farmer, it’s interesting to know”. This fulfils their need for reassurance; the producer seems to be the most competent person to give this information. Simultaneously, for the producers a direct relationship with the consumer is an opportunity to demonstrate the features of their products, to talk about their work, to explain what they do and what their constraints are, and also glean interesting details on what the consumers think of their products. The cognitive dimension of the relationship can thus be illustrated as a reciprocal process of exchange of information, knowledge and know-how.

The emotional dimension

35Within the scope of the relationships we observed, the emotional dimension is involved at different points. In some cases it is anterior to the producer-consumer relationship, the involved parties are already friends, relations or neighbors: “We’re friends, so it’s easy, friendly, pleasant”. In other cases, the emotional dimension appears during the relationship, repeated meetings and transactions are gradually replaced by emotions and shared feelings: “They’re not just customers. We have a more human relationship, a more friendly one”. Within the scope of this emotional dimension, the commitment and the trust placed in the producer are sometimes described as being the variables that participate in strengthening the consumers’ relationship. (Morgan et Hunt, 1994).

36Although these three dimensions; the trading, cognitive and emotional dimensions are used by both producers and consumers to describe the direct relationships in which they participate, there are two other dimensions that refer more specifically to the way the consumers envisage this relationship: the humanistic dimension and the symbolic dimension.

The humanistic dimension

37Although what we describe as the humanistic dimension seems “new” it is not marginal, but refers to the interdependence and solidarity mentioned by some of the consumers who feel that by trading directly with the farmers they are supporting them: “At the same time it’s a way of helping the farmers”. These consumers are really seeking to establish an alternative relationship between the producer and consumer. They would like the producers to be paid a fair price for their products and make sure the profits are not shared between numerous anonymous intermediaries.

The symbolic dimension

38Finally, the last dimension used by the consumers in the construction of a relationship with the producer is the symbolic dimension. This dimension is more or less sub-conscious and in the consumer’s mind it refers to the different ways in which they imagine how the products are produced and transformed. In a context of food crises, the producer who sells his goods himself is associated for many consumers with traditional farming methods: smallholdings, livestock raised in the open air, hand-picked grapes, etc. “[direct sales always suggests] Quality, small farming, small herds. In my mind that is what direct sales is about, it’s the farmer selling direct to the consumer, it means small farming”. If there is no concrete information, the way the consumer imagines the producer or the direct sales system will become part of the relationship.

39These five dimensions: trading, cognitive, emotional, human and symbolic, are not always used by the participants in the same way. Different types of relationships can be distinguished, each of which uses different combinations of these dimensions. Although some consumers set up a relationship with the producer based on an emotional and/or symbolic foundation, others prefer to adopt a trading approach.

40Based on the interviews we recorded with consumers, we shall therefore describe the multiplicity of relationships observed, pooling the results of all three case studies. We will also give details about the background to the observation of each type of relationship.

Five types of producer-consumer relationships

41Taking into account the intensity and the dimensions of the relationship expressed by the consumers, five typical relationships emerge:

Figure 2: Five types of producer-consumer relationships (As experienced by the consumer)

42Relationship A is intense and characterized by many meetings, these also take place outside a trading environment. The producer is a friend, a member of the family or a neighbor and belongs to the network of people the producer knows: “it’s an opportunity to see people I like and that I hold in esteem”. Here, the preexisting emotional dimension takes over. This is the type of relationship we observed mainly among consumers of beef and some of the consumers of wine who buy their products directly from the farm.

43Relationship B also features the consumers’ emotional involvement. They want information about the product, but beyond that they are seeking to become acquainted with the producer and set up a link through more personal exchanges. “The main value is above all meeting the person, having a chat, especially with the wine-growers. At a pinch you could even say that it contributes to the quality of the wine-tasting session afterwards”. These meetings take place regularly, but not necessarily frequently. They can last quite a long time because the consumer is taken round the farm, or has tasted the wine and sometimes they are just an opportunity for a discussion. In time, the producer becomes a person you like, with whom you like to have a chat. The symbolic dimension also plays a part in this type of relationship and is quite strongly involved in this desire for customer intimacy. This type of relationship was observed in all three cases studied (wine, beef and red-label poultry).

44Relationship C is very strongly influenced by the symbolic dimension. The image of the small farmer selling his own products, whose archetype is the wine-grower, is meaningful and represents values for the consumers. The small farmer and his smallholding are supposed to transfer the properties they represent to their products; “conviviality”, “trust”, “good living”, intangible assets that are more and more frequently connected to products and consumed with them. Identifying the producer and/or where he lives counts as much, if not more than the official guarantee provided by a quality label. The consumer rarely meets the producer and sometimes only through an intermediary.

45For the consumer, it is the idea of this link with the producer that is more important than the actual relationship itself, whether the link is a direct or not. “I don’t know whether the one who comes along is the farmer or not. He is one of the farmers, that I do know. And there is a link”. The symbolic dimension is also maintained by the producers who give out signals that signify that they are “accessible”, can be contacted, are available and that the relationship can become a personal and active one at any point in time. It is also in this type of relationship that the human dimension is most clearly expressed. This type of relationship was also observed in all three case studies (wine, beef and red-label poultry).

46Relationship D is characterized by a strong trading dimension rather than by its intensity, which may vary. This type of relationship is principally constructed around the consumer’s interests; and the latter has a very rational approach to the relationship he has with the producer, usually considering that the system operates well and is less costly. In his eyes he has no special relationship with the producer; their relationship is envisaged as a commercial one between a supplier and a customer. “You can’t really say that there is any link”. The cognitive dimension is also present insofar as the consumers appreciate having information on the products, its features, its origin, the production methods. Here again, the same type of relationship was observed in all of the three case studies.

47Finally, in relationship E, the intensity of the relationship between the producer and the consumer is at its lowest level, the meeting between the two parties is limited to eye contact and no words are spoken. However, even in this type of relationship the consumers feel that it is possible to obtain information on the production methods and say that they feel reassured when the farmer is there. So, two dimensions seem to contribute to this singular type of relationship: 1) the cognitive dimension – although it is not really implemented in a concrete way, it is perceived as being potentially active – and 2) the symbolic dimension to the extent that the mere presence of the farmer is meaningful and represents a set of values. The relationships observed during the promotional events organized in supermarkets and hypermarkets by red-label poultry farmers illustrate this type of relationship best.

48Thus, from the consumers’ standpoint, five distinct types of relationship seem to emerge. Each of these features a varied degree of intensity and a different combination of the various dimensions that contribute to the relationship (trading, cognitive, emotional, human and symbolic). However, all have a common component: trust.

Trusting relationships

49All the consumers mention trust when they describe the relationship they have with the producers. However, the consumer’s trust can be revealed through a number of different entities: the product, the brand, the sales system, the salesperson, the producer or even the organization and a number of components: benevolence, credibility, integrity, accessibility, etc. According to these entities, trust will not be expressed in the same way and may be shown in a different form (Cf. Figure n°3).

Figure 3: Components of trust associated to the different relationships - Les formes de confiance associées à la relation

50In relationship A, trust is mainly interpersonal because it is based on the partners’ identity. Thus, it is benevolence, through friendship between parties which constitutes trust: “He’s a friend. We trust him. It’s important”. It is principally because these people know the producer that they buy his products.

51The credibility given to a partner, based on the collection of direct or indirect proof, is not often seen here. The consumers do not seem to seek any, or at any rate, very little specific information on the products. This suggests that a part of the knowledge acquired is given directly during informal discussions between friends, outside the buying and selling periods: “We know them very well. We have already had opportunities to talk about all that in the past”.

52In relationship B, the consumers’ trust is expressed mainly with regard to the producer. Although it is mainly based on the producer’s perceived benevolence, the know-how and the commitment of the latter are also important components. The trust observed here is therefore more complex because it is made up of several components.

53The consumers feel that the producer’s identity is very important but, contrary to the previous relationship here the producer does not appear as a friend but more as a familiar person, someone pleasant and nice that the consumer has grown to know through his experiences of purchasing. “We know them all and I think that counts. There is a certain trust however”. The producer’s perceived benevolence can also be explained by the fact that he asks the consumer whether the product has met his expectations: “I go around the farms, I’m in contact with these people all the time. I see Laurent and he asks me ‘What did you think of it?’.” Benevolence becomes even stronger when the producer pays special attention to his customers.

54Beyond the trust that is based on the producer’s identity, the consumer’s trust can also be expressed by the fact that he thinks the producer has a special competence or know-how. This kind of trust is based on the credibility of the producer. “My trust is based on the fact that I think they are people who do their job particularly well”. It can also be measured by the fact that the consumers feel that the producer’s reputation is important: “If I’d purchased it in the supermarket I wouldn’t have trusted it. But here, they have a good reputation.”

55This perceived integrity and honesty of the producer is an additional factor: “My trust is based on the fact that I believe the farmers are involved (…) and honestly; we feel that if they offer us their products it’s above all to satisfy the customer”.

56In relationship C, trust is based on a system of beliefs rather than on what the consumer really knows. Here again benevolence is predominant, but it is expressed through the person who sells. In this case, it is not the producer: “I trust the system and the way it’s organized”. Most of the people in this group were the consumers whose goods were delivered to the doorstep.

57Beyond the relationship component, the credibility with which people and more broadly the sales system are credited also reinforces the consumer’s trust: “I trust them. I trust them more than the supermarket because I know where it comes from”.

58We can also see that the consumers feel that the producer’s commitment is important, although they are not in direct contact. Because he fulfils his promise, the producer’s commitment is perceived by the consumers as a strong sign of their partner’s integrity. Because the producer puts his name on his products, because he takes the orders himself or through an intermediary or representative and delivers the goods to the consumer’s doorstep, he is honest and the system can be trusted: “We know who sold it to us, so if it isn’t good he’s trapped, he’ll be held responsible.

59This commitment also allows the consumer to benefit from several means of getting into contact with the producer. Even if the interactions between the producer and consumer are quite weak in this type of relationship, the direct relationship seems to be potentially active and that is especially important. The accessibility of the producer reinforces the consumer’s trust in him and in this sense can be seen as one of the main components of trust, different from benevolence, credibility and integrity.

60In relationship D, the consumer’s trust is not expressed with regard to the producer, but is based more on the credibility of the sales system or the product. Here consumers prefer the direct sales system because it is less risky: “I think that I don’t need to worry about quality, hygiene and so on….” It is cheaper and more practical: “It is true that when you work it’s practical, I know I’ve got a piece of meat in the freezer.”

61Lastly, in relationship E, the producer’s integrity and accessibility are the main components of trust. The consumers feel that, because he dares to show himself, to come and see them, above all in an environment like a supermarket which is not familiar to him, the producer has respected his commitment, that is to say: produced a quality product. By being there and spending time with the consumers, in addition to doing his job as a farmer, he shows his integrity. He is not a sales rep like the others, he is first and foremost a farmer and that is what’s reassuring.

62Also, even if the consumers don’t often take advantage of his presence to get information, they know that they can do so if needed, either to get some rather specific information or advice, or even to say that they are not satisfied. Here again, the accessibility of the producer reinforces the consumer’s trust in him. Even if the interaction is weak, each party knows that the relationship is easily activated if necessary.

Conclusion: the producer-to-consumer relationship as a judgment device

63As Karpik already suggests (in Mangematin and Thuderoz, 2003), this study confirms the interest in considering trust as a concept which takes root in a composite system combining knowledge and beliefs. The different forms of trust we observed in producer-to-consumer relationships show us that knowledge of the products, acquaintance with the producers and belief contribute to trust. For some of the consumers (relation type A, B or C), this emotional attachment with the producer reduces the part of uncertainty towards the choice of foodstuffs. For other consumers (relations D and E) who did not know either the products, the production place or the producer himself, the belief granted to the system, based on their own representations and values, is the most important in the construction of trust.

64Moreover, beyond the three dimensions of trust: credibility, integrity and benevolence, traditionally distinguished in a lot of studies (as Hess, 1995; Ganesan et Hess, 1997; Sirieix et Dubois, 1999; Gurviez, 1999), this research shows that the possibility for a consumer to contact the producer -what we call producer’s accessibility- is also very important in the emergence of trust. If the concept of trust has received a great deal of attention during the past few years, trust of accessibility is not very developed in the literature. We therefore think that many contributions could be made, especially in areas like this one, which is today less studied.

65The second major contribution of this study will concern the influence of direct relationships on perceived quality. The direct producer-to-consumer relationship can be viewed as a judgment device of food quality, sometimes based on impersonal trust and other times based on personal trust. Although perceived quality is traditionally based on the evaluation of nutritional, hygienic, organoleptic, social, symbolic, functional and humanistic dimensions, this study shows two kinds of qualification process:

66On the one hand direct relationships modify the perception of the generic quality as much as the specific quality of food products (sensory, symbolic, humanistic qualities, etc.): “It tastes really different, it’s clear, it’s not the same at all”; “In beef, we found a taste that we had lost”; “The taste is stronger, it makes things different”.

67On the other hand that direct relationships appears (when the emotional components of the relationship is very strong) as a new dimension of food quality. Indeed, some consumers buy those products only because they have an emotional relationship with the producer (he is a friend, a member of the family): “We buy our meat there because the farmers are members of our family”.

68Therefore, might we suggest that, for some consumers, or some of their purchases, an exchange of a more social than commercial nature is desired?

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1 Dubuisson–Quellier, 2002
2 Community Supported Agriculture
3 Pradelle, 1996
4 See for example Granovetter 1985; De la Pradelle, 1996; Steiner, 1999; Beckert, 2000; Le Velly, 2002
5 Sylvander, 2002
6 Simmel, 1987
7 Gurviez, 1999
8 Area located in the West of France
9 People involved in the process of building direct relationships, present in the structure when those relationships emerged (managing directors, elected officials, board members, heads of communication and marketing departments)
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Electronic reference

Anne-Hélène Prigent-Simonin and Catherine Hérault-Fournier, “The role of trust in the perception of the quality of local food products: with particular reference to direct relationships between producer and consumer”Anthropology of food [Online], 4 | May 2005, Online since 01 May 2005, connection on 21 February 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Anne-Hélène Prigent-Simonin

Ecole Supérieure d’Agriculture d’Angers, Laboratoire de Sciences Sociales

Catherine Hérault-Fournier

Ecole Supérieure d’Agriculture d’Angers, Laboratoire de Sciences Sociales

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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