To walk through a modern supermarket you will see signs and labels that would give you the impression that today’s shoppers and very worried about a variety of issues related to how their food is produced and processed. You are likely to see a sign over the dairy case stating that the milk has no hormones. You might see a label on a box of cereal that says GMO free. There could be a sign over the pork section of the meat case that says not raised in gestation stalls, or a sign over the beef section telling shoppers there was no antibiotics used. The problem is according to the research the majority of consumers are not worried about most of these issues. Pressure and propaganda from radical activist groups has scared skittish retailers and food processors into putting out these warnings.
The latest consumer attitude research from the Center for Feed Integrity (CFI) reveals some surprising results, consumers have a good deal of confidence in the food they eat and trust government agencies to protect them. The research shows a market upturn in positive attitudes about GMO food products and significant percentages have positive attitudes toward the use of antibiotics in livestock production. The study also showed that when educated about confined livestock production most consumers had a positive response to the use of confinement animal production. Unfortunately this is information you will not see on the front page of the New York Times, or as top story on ABC Network news.
Since 2007 CFI has been conducting rigorous, sophisticated and comprehensive consumer attitude studies. These studies tract shifts in consumer attitudes and provide strategies on the best way to craft messages to reach and inform consumers about key food issues. According to CFI, “The 2012 Consumer Trust in the Food System research focuses on consumer Values-Orientations, or an individual’s view of society that influences the perception of self and others. If consumers believe today’s food production practices are aligned with what they believe those in the food system should do then they are more likely to trust those practices.” Some of the classifications identified in the study were: the traditionalist- someone who has a very traditional view of how food should be produced, the fatalist- someone who feels they have no control over food production, quality, or price, and the collectivist, who trusts government agencies to protect them on food issues. While each group had slightly different attitudes on food issues all responded positively when provided education about the issue in question. For example when it was explained that raising animals in confined housing protected them from predators, inclement weather conditions, and disease, their attitudes toward confined animal feeding improved.
For most people involved in livestock production this may seem like stating the obvious but keep in mind most consumers do not connect the dots between the meat case and farm. Likewise when it was explained to consumers that the use of hormones in livestock production meant less land had to be used, that the practice had been going on for over 50 years with no proven problems, and that the FDA has approved the practice, there was a significant improvement in attitudes. Attitudes on antibiotic use also improved when it was explained that farmers must abide to strict withdrawal procedures before sending the animals to slaughter and that the FDA regulated the process, opinions became more positive.
So how do we go about reaching consumers with these messages? The CFI study showed that each consumer group turned to different sources to get information. The web, however, was a consistent top source of information. Generally Friends and family ranked second with local television news a strong third. Yet one factor that rated highly among almost all of the groups identified was FDA approval.
While it may seem simplistic, I feel we could make a lot of headway with consumers by putting a large and official looking label on most of our food products that read something like; This product produced and processed with methods and materials regulated and approved by the FDA and/or USDA. Perhaps we could also put a web address or QR code that would take consumers to a web site that would explain the technology being used by agriculture today is improving the food we eat while protecting the environment we all share.
The CFI study confirms that a study by the US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. According to the survey, 53 percent of Americans believe food production is heading in the right direction – an increase from the 48 percent who believed the same in a benchmark 2011 USFRA survey. Yet the survey reveals a gap between how Americans feel about their food and what they really know about their food. More than one in four Americans (27 percent) admit they often are confused about the food they are purchasing. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) do not believe that 95 percent of all U.S. farms are in fact family-owned1. While two-thirds of Americans (66 percent) correctly believe that pesticide use decreased from 956 million pounds in 1999 to 877 million pounds in 20072.
The USFRA study also looked at a key factor that seemingly most store managers have forgotten, “When it comes to purchasing groceries, Americans prioritize cost (47 percent), quality (43 percent) and healthiness/nutrition (21 percent).” Why don’t se we have signs and labels dealing with these issues? Perhaps a sign over the sugar cereals that reads, These are over prices products with very little nutritional value, or in the bottled water section a sign that reads, the price markup on this city tab water is 200%. Now those are signs that really deal with the actual concerns of shoppers.
While the research shows that we are making progress with consumers on how and why their food is produced the way it is, it also shows we have a long way to go. Yet from this research the food and agriculture industry can learn more effective way of communicating with consumers and boosting their confidence in the nation’s food supply.
by Gary Truitt