Savvy grocery shoppers take increased interest in how food is produced
Consumer preferences are becoming increasingly important and apparent in purchasing food decisions. In the latest edition of Animal Frontiers, researchers examined animal welfare around the world and how welfare practices affect choices at the grocery store.
Nicole Olynk, an agriculture economist at Purdue University and author of the article “Assessing changing consumer preferences for livestock production processes,” writes that even though most consumers are removed from agriculture and food production, they are becoming increasingly concerned about how, where and when their food is produced.
“Ultimately, it is consumers, not farmers, who decide how farm animals are raised,” Olynk writes.
Consumers expect transparency when it comes to agriculture production processes. The problem is that producers tend to use terms that consumers do not understand. Today, producers are trying to discover how best to gain consumer confidence.
“Advocating products or processes is not necessarily educating consumers; agriculture must be careful that educational campaigns are truthful and transparent rather than perceived as marketing efforts,” said Olynk in an interview with ASAS.
Another issue that producers face is the economics of animal welfare. What may be the best for animal welfare, may not be the most economically sustainable for the producer. For example, Olynk writes that keeping livestock close together might not be the best for their welfare, but higher-density stocking is more profitable. Farmers then have to find a balance between economics and animals welfare.
Olynk suggests that producers try strategies like building hog pens with gates that can be removed to turn individual pens into group pens. That way, producers can respond to consumer preferences.
“Staying informed and investing management effort into building flexibility into your system can help lessen adjustment costs later,” said Olynk.
Some changes come from new regulations, but many changes in agricultural practices are spurred by market forces and retailer reactions. One example is the use of the artificial hormone rBST in dairy production. There is no federal regulation against the use of rBST in dairy cattle, but many dairy processors and producers have moved away from the use of rBST due to consumer preference. Dairy products are often labeled as “rBST free” or “no artificial growth hormones.”
To try and better capture consumer preferences, researchers examined consumer willingness to pay. In recent studies, researchers found that consumer willingness to pay was influenced most by the method by which the animal was raised and the organization that verified the product.
A question that has yet to be fully answered is who is going to pay for these welfare changes. A likely answer is that the cost will be split between producers and consumers. Costs can also be affected by conditions outside producer control.
“We’re seeing changing feed costs in reaction to this summer’s drought conditions across large portions of the U.S,” said Olynk. “How effectively producers can pass costs along to consumers is highly dependent on the product in question and the market conditions at any specific time.”
Olynk’s article can be read in full at animalfrontiers.org.
ASAS Scientific Communications Associate
MadelineMS@asas.org / 217-689-2435