PODCAST | April 30, 2024

The Cracked Egg: Ashley Bruner, CCFI, Episode 9 Summary

Here is a summary of our chat with Ashley Bruner, Director of Research & Stakeholder Engagement with the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity (CCFI).

EFA: Egg Farmers of Alberta

AB: Ashley Bruner, CCFI

Note: This conversation has been edited for clarity. 

EFA: Joining us from the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity, or CCFI, abbreviated, is Ashley Brunner. Ashley is the Director of Research and Stakeholder Engagement at CCFI. And it’s our pleasure to welcome her today to the show. Thank you so much for being here, Ashley.

AB: Thank you so much for having me. I’m very happy to be here today.

EFA: Please share a little about who you are and what it is that you’re responsible for at the CCFI

AB: Absolutely. My background is not in agri-food at all, but I came in not knowing much about agri-food, but knowing a lot about public opinion research. I have a degree in public policy, and I worked in consumer public opinion research for many years. Then I shifted over the last six years or so with the CCFI, I’ve focused on public opinion related to Canada’s agri-food system, with a particular focus with CCFI on issues relating to and impacting public trust.

EFA: Egg Farmers of Alberta is a member, are all commodity groups also members?

AB: Not all, unfortunately, but we’re getting there. Our membership is quite diverse. We represent the breadth and depth of Canada’s agri-food system itself. We do have national and provincial commodity groups like egg, milk, chicken, cattle, and canola. We also have provincial and national agriculture departments. We have retail. We’ve signed on Loblaws and Save on Foods. We have processing members, the Federation of Ag, and other amplifier and coordinator groups like Farm and Food Care, Saskatchewan, FCC, and AdFarm. We’re a registered non-profit charity, so we still accept donations. We get individual donations from farmers as well.

EFA: It’s nice to see that the members are vast. If you had to summarize what the CCFI is about and what its role is within agriculture in Canada, what would you share?

AB: Overall, the big picture, why we are who we are, and what we do is to foster public trust in Canada’s agri-food system, and we do that in several different ways. We engage with the industry, with our members, and with the industry overall to help them better understand and respond to consumer issues. Increasingly, over the last couple of years, we’ve kind of expanded our reach in building public trust by communicating directly to the community, and to consumers as well. We’re a registered non-profit that doesn’t advocate for one form of production or one sector over the other. We step into that role as a balanced, objective voice for the food system. To that end, we are increasingly communicating with consumers. We have a public-facing website. It’s good Canada. We call it two-way communication. We work with the industry to earn public trust, and we work directly with consumers to demonstrate all the great stories, the good news, the innovations of the agri-food system and to be that trusted, valued voice, for consumers as well.

EFA: And how frequently does the research occur?

AB: We communicate to the sector, and our members about public opinion. What does the average Canadian think, feel, and act when it comes to the food they eat and encounter in their day-to-day lives? To that end, I, as the Director of the research portfolio, run annual public trust research. That’s a national, public trust study that we run every summer. We are quite strict with timing to make sure that each year is as consistent as possible in terms of fieldwork timing, at least that’s one variable making sure we’re comparing apples to apples or opinions to opinions as much as possible.

EFA: Okay. And does the size of the pool change based on what your objectives or themes are for the year?

AB: We are committed to some minimum-based sizes across the country. If you were to enlist a research firm to do this yourself, they would recommend maybe 1,000 Canadians across the country. That’s a good enough sample size. I’m a perfectionist so good enough is not good enough. We’ve boosted the sample size. We have minimum-based sizes, not just grouping the prairies together, not just grouping Atlantic provinces, but a readable minimum base size across every province. We can provide at least some accurate level of understanding of what’s going on in each province. We also partner with the different provincial ministries of agriculture.

EFA: We’ve mentioned research. What are the main parts that it is that you and your team look at?

AB: Our research before it even is fielded, what we look at, the questions we ask, it’s informed by membership and an external research advisory panel that I run. It’s comprised of some members, a board of directors, and academics across the country. We work together to develop the research objectives and themes of each year. We have a little basket of tracking questions we ask every year, and then the rest of the survey is kind of open. We look at older tracking metrics. For example, we did some meat consumption habit questions in 2019, that we reused in 2023. Just knowing the cost of food is a big issue and people think meat is expensive. We were able to look at what’s happening in the current day and think about what we might have in the past that can help us better understand those current issues. We open up the vault in that way, and then we’re open to different questions, different forms of inquiry, and different types of analysis. We try to always think outside of the box but within budget.

EFA: This research and the insights that you provide, is it more aimed at producers or retailers and consumers as well?

AB: Our research is a little bit for everyone. We track perceptions related to big-picture issues that affect everyone no matter where you are on the food value chain. Like trust, transparency, food safety, animal welfare, and crop science. Then we also track perceptions, and views related to different stakeholders as well. So, producers, manufacturers, government politicians, NGOs, scientists, and academics. We track both how people trust or feel or view those stakeholders, as well as those attitudinal beliefs related to key issues. It’s a little bit of everything for everyone and ultimately, the research insights are meant to help the food system better understand the consumers we serve. We’re taking those findings and informing our own public-facing communications to make sure that we’re matching the messaging with the right messenger and the right topics to the groups that we’re talking to.

EFA: Our world has seen change over the last few years and several different aspects. What emerging trends have you sort of seen as the top over the last year?

AB: Yeah, I was thinking about this, and if I never hear the phrase unprecedented times again, I think I would sleep soundly. But alas, there’s always something on the horizon for us. In terms of consumer trends related to food and agriculture, I think the reversal that we’re seeing is almost a reversal of the reverse in trend. What I mean is specific to environment and sustainability. This is a top concern typically for Canadians and it’s within the media, within our sector, and the industry everywhere, it’s very much a buzzword for environment and sustainability. Then when we look at least at our data, we see a real softening in terms of public concern and attention. On that topic, we see that Canadians are far more concerned about those more immediate, in-your-face issues related to its cost of living has kind of taken the air out of the room for everything else at the moment. The cost of food inflation, and housing interest rates, it’s focused on consumer concerns about affordability. We’re seeing like I said, what used to be a trend, what used to be very trendy, sustainability is almost softening. That’s not to say it isn’t something people don’t care about. It’s just more of a back-burner issue, and something that the agri-food system is, has always cared about.

EFA: Here’s a little fact, just about Egg Farmers of Alberta. We were the first province in Canada, back in 2014 to develop a producer environmental program. Sustainability is a big part of what we do at Egg Farmers of Alberta and for the egg farms that provide local eggs to Albertans.

AB: Fantastic!

EFA: How significant is the term now that we talk about local? How significant is it becoming?

AB: It’s interesting, there is an interest among the average Canadian in local food. We did focus groups a while back when we asked people about it. Kind of all the things you would guess were brought up that there’s kind of an association of better, higher nutritional value, freshness, less food miles, as well as a perception that local food, would be more sustainable simply because it’s raised closer to home. So local and sustainable do get conflated and that’s not necessarily always the case. I think the good news is that when we kind of drill down further in terms of what local means to people, it’s a little bit of everything for everyone. It depends on where you live. For some, it’s within your province. If you live on a border somewhere, you might define it as within 30 – 60 km of where you live. Simply from within Canada would be those top three definitions.

EFA: It’s funny to mention local because I still hear from people that they feel they need to go to a farmers’ market to buy local eggs here. What they don’t realize is that you can just go to your favorite grocery store, and they are local eggs, right from egg farms in Alberta. They just take 5 to 7 days to get there, since they have to go through the grading station before. But you can get local eggs right in your city.

What are the top factors that consumers value the most when making those purchasing decisions?

AB: The Canadian moving from the Canadian citizen and looking at the Canadian consumer. We at CCFI, kind of do both. We want to understand those broad feelings of the food system. We also want to know what you are putting your values and your opinions to work here with your dollars. When it comes to what people value most when deciding what to buy, it’s price by a long shot. As much as someone might want to care about, say, packaging, for example, if it costs triple the price, especially in this environment, once you get to a grocery store, those aspirational goals are out the window when you’re faced with that decision. Our research shows that first its price, following that, people value the quality, freshness, and nutritional value of a food. If you can’t solve for price, we should be focusing on the quality, the freshness, and the nutritional value of the food product. You’re lucky to have a lot of those all packaged in one with eggs. So lucky for you!

EFA: Yeah. Let’s just circle back to sustainability for a moment and, the term, how has it evolved?

AB: Right. I think at least within the industry, we’re seeing a much more expanded holistic understanding and communication of sustainability. It doesn’t only mean the environment, but we’re also looking broader. So social sustainability, our wages, working conditions, and economic sustainability. We are seeing that expanded, more holistic view of sustainability for consumers. On the other hand, we’re still pretty caught up in that environmental impact piece. When we ask Canadians what makes food sustainable, it’s having a lower impact on the environment, and is the number one association, by a long shot in terms of who is most interested or engaging or concerned about sustainability. I combed through our most recent data in 2023, and it was similar in 2022 as well. It’s kind of surprising that it’s older Canadians and baby boomers at least in our data, who are the most concerned, most consistently across our different sustainability metrics. I feel like there is a common assumption. It’s kind of like the youngest Canadians, the Gen Zers, who are kind of leading the climate action change, the climate change concern, and they are higher than like Gen Xers, but it’s the baby boomers with the highest levels of concern across the greatest number of sustainability metrics.

EFA: I’m surprised because I would have thought myself like maybe Gen X or millennials. So, that’s very interesting.

Now looking at all this research, which spokesperson resonates the most when it comes to farming or environmental issues?

AB: This is a good question, and it does depend. We have found that the messenger matters depending on the topic area. My general advice is when in doubt, get a farmer because they have extra time in the day to also be the spokespeople and champions of our industry. But alas, they are the most trusted, and most believed across most key issues. Certainly, when it comes to environmental issues, depending on when I say different topic areas. If you’re talking about animal welfare, people do say vets are more believed than farmers. When we’re talking about nutrition, dietitians and doctors are the top associations. In terms of farming and even in terms of environmental issues, it’s farmers and ranchers.

EFA: I would have to agree about farmers. We make it a big goal of ours to always have farmers present at our key agricultural events in Calgary, like Aggie Days and the Calgary Stampede. Just seeing the interaction between the public and the farmers, it’s great to hear the questions they ask and answers right from the source that works every day.

AB: Exactly. It’s not too often people go to the farm. I guess we have to bring the farmers to the people.

EFA: What are assurance logos and what do they mean on food? Because I know there’s a variety of those out there as well.

AB: We have done some research on assurance logos. We asked people, do you even look for these assurance logos when you’re shopping? Yes or no and not many do. We found about a quarter of people say that they’re even looking at the packaging for some sort of label to tell them this product is X, Y or Z. Among that group of people, a quarter of Canadians who are looking for assurance logos, half of that group say the non-GMO project logo is what they’re looking for. The second most common is Canadian organic at 38%. So about 4 in 10 Canadians. Among that 25% look for assurance logos. The third mention is quality assurance labels. So that would be eggs, for example. It’s a bit murky I think for the consumer, so we ask about different claims and terms as well. Vague terms, like any product that says all natural or just sustainable, are viewed skeptically. We’re happy to hear that Canadians mostly believe the black and white ingredients, country of origin, and nutritional information. Those are kind of the main things people believe and trust.

EFA: We recently celebrated Canadian Agriculture Day back on February 13th. Why is this a special day for Canadian agriculture?

AB: It’s something special, I got to say. It’s a celebration of Canadian food. The people who produce it. It gives our country a much-needed reminder and almost a pause for Canadian agriculture. It’s not just this thing to be shuttled off into a field somewhere, but it’s essential. It’s innovative. It’s fast-paced. It’s essential to the nation’s food security, our economic prosperity, the GDP contributions, contributing to environmental sustainability and cultural heritage. It’s a big celebration online. There are different activations across the country, and we see it as a chance for farmers, ag organizations, policymakers, and all partners throughout the value chain to kind of take a beat and engage in conversations about food production, different key topics safety, and sustainability. It promotes a day of transparency and dialogue between the ag sector and the public, trying to foster a greater understanding, trust, and appreciation for agriculture. We’re happy to be the wizards behind the curtain for that day!

EFA: And how can the public take part in the future?

AB: There are lots of ways! Canadians can participate in Canada’s Ag Day by thanking farmers and food producers on their social channels. They can join events related to Canada’s Ag Day, supporting Canadian farmers and choosing Canadian-grown and produced food. Learn it. Just learning more about where their food comes from to help them make informed decisions. Even take some time on Indeed to consider Canadian agriculture as an employer. It’s not just pitchforks and tractors, although those are great, but there are thousands of possibilities for employment in agriculture. Above all, stay informed, and stay engaged on issues that impact us all, whether we realize it or not.

EFA: From our conversation today and what we’ve covered, what would be one key takeaway that you would want the public to remember?

AB: I would want to stress the importance of recognizing and raising that awareness of how closely linked Canadian agriculture is to our everyday lives. So again, it’s not just about farms. It’s not just about food; agriculture shapes our economy, environment, and culture. This awareness, this appreciation, just kind of keeping an eye out for the incredibly complex and integrated food system, the food chain that we all benefit from. It shouldn’t be a year, it shouldn’t be a one day, Canada’s Ag Day kind of thing. But trying to raise that awareness and realizing agriculture is a vital part of Canada’s past, present, and future.

EFA: Lastly, where could the public get more information if they were interested in the CCFI?

AB: We have a couple of channels. If you’re the general public, an average Canadian looking to learn a bit more about the food you eat, how it’s created, and the people that do it, please check out It’s good Canada (itsgoodcanada.ca), we have a ton of great resources, infographics, Q and A from trusted spokespeople for you to check out. If you are a member of the industry, if you’re not yet a member, please reach out and check us out at Food Integrity.ca There you can see and download our free research reports, and learn about our members, our team, and all the great work we have going on at CCFI.

EFA: Perfect. Egg Farmers of Alberta value the insight that we get from the CCFI and to be a member of the CCFI.

Thank you very much, Ashley, for being here today and for the chat!