As part of her PhD, Tonkin is researching the ways in which food labelling gives consumers insight into the production of food and, importantly, influences their trust in the food system — from the companies that manufacture foods to the governments that regulate them.
"Back in agrarian civilisations people grew their own produce and slaughtered their own meat so they knew exactly where their food came from and what was in it but now we have limited knowledge — we've become really disconnected with food," Tonkin said.
"The way we deal with that is by trusting in the people who make our food and the governments that regulate it," she said.
"But because we don't have any direct communication with these producers, we rely on the labelling on our food for information so it becomes a window into how the food system works."
As part of her research, Tonkin will begin consumer interviews and choice experiments early next year to find out what information on food labels builds trust.
"We'll be looking at whether particular aspects of the labels — including information such as the country of origin, allergen statements and expiry dates — cause consumers to have particularly strong reactions to the product and their faith in producers and regulators," she said.
"We'll also be looking at whether certification by a third party, for example the Heart Foundation's 'tick of approval', influences trust."
The results, she said, could provide the groundwork for a wider study led by her PhD supervisor and Professor of Public Health John Coveney into the increased role governments could play in improving the way labelling systems communicate with consumers.
"Professor Coveney's earlier research has shown that Australians want more government endorsement on food labels because they see it as a symbol that the food's safe and is being governed appropriately.
"Based on the results of the next study we'll be looking at highlighting to the Australian Government that food labels have a broader role than just mitigating risk, and could be presented in a more effective way to increase consumer trust in the food system."