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Published April 29, 2013, 10:33 AM

What a food consumer wants

One of the key findings in a recent White Paper was that the trust consumers have in food production is related to the level of excellent knowledge consumers think they have about production practices

By: Daryll E. Ray and Harwood D. Schaffer, Agweek

Recently, we ran across a White Paper by the advertising and marketing agency, Sullivan Higdon & Sink titled, “Building Trust in What We Eat: Consumers’ knowledge of and trust in food production and how food marketers can improve it.” As we read the paper, it occurred to us that while the White Paper was designed to provide information that SHS believed is of importance to food marketers, it also provides information about trust in the food system that is extremely important to farmers and ranchers.

One of the key findings was that the trust consumers have in food production is related to the level of excellent knowledge consumers think they have about production practices. The more they feel they know about food production practices, the greater the level of trust consumers have in the food production practices.

For people living on a farm or in farming communities, that connection is clear because they live with it and see it every day. They see newborn calves in the field and they hear them bawl when they are weaned. The castration of young male animals to reduce aggression and increase the tenderness of the meat is not foreign to them.

Those rural residents who live off the farm or ranch usually know many farmers or ranchers and know that they strive to provide a safe, nutritious product.

The chance for consumers who live in urban areas to gain that kind information about production practices is more restricted, simply because their daily activities don’t bring them into regular contact with farmers. What seems normal to rural folks can be unsettling to urban residents, thus the need for more information about the whys and hows of production practices.

The SHS paper found that “69 percent of consumers think it’s important to understand how their food is produced.” This desire for more information, on the part of consumers, provides an opportunity for producers and their commodity organizations to provide factual information to the general public and enter into a dialogue with them.

In some cases, it is consumers who will come to see some production practices differently once the rationale for the activity is explained to them. In other cases, producers may need to modify their production practices to meet the expectations of the consumer.

SHS argues that “food packaging provides a canvas to show [the] food production story.” The study indicated that “about 67 percent of consumers would like packaging of meat products to provide more information about the product ... 60 percent want to know if the animal was given growth hormones, 42 percent want to know what medicine the animal was given during its lifetime, 34 percent want to know what the animal’s living conditions were like, and 34 percent want to know where the animal was raised.”

While these questions were once simply the purview of the farmer, it must be remembered that the consumer is a crucial element in the production process. With their purchase at the retail meat counter, they provide the money that makes the whole system work. The production system needs to take consumer wishes into consideration and provide them with the product they want.

One example we have found of this attention to the desires of a subset of consumers is Eggland’s Best Eggs. In one of the coolers in our local grocery store, they may have 10 to 20 percent of the space devoted to eggs, but in that space, they give the consumers the choice of brown eggs, white eggs, cage-free eggs, and organic eggs — each at a different price point.

On its website, the company writes “Eggland’s Best hen feed is a special all-natural, all-vegetarian feed that contains healthy grains, canola oil, and an all-natural supplement of rice bran, alfalfa, sea kelp, and Vitamin E — no animal fat, no animal by-products, and no recycled or processed food. We never use hormones, steroids, or antibiotics of any kind.” It even documents the environmental rationale for the various packing systems it uses for its eggs. In the past decade, we have seen the size of the Eggland’s Best section grow as consumers have become more health conscious.

Certainly meat production and processing is more complicated than that of eggs, but the point is clear, farmers need to pay attention to the changing attitudes of their ultimate customer — the woman or the man at the retail counter. To keep these consumers coming back, producers will need to be transparent about their production practices and willing to modify those that would reduce demand for the animal protein they produce.

Ultimately, there are and will be producers who are attuned to a premium market where the preferences of consumers have an impact on production practices, and there will continue to be producers who will provide an undifferentiated product at a lower price point.

Editor’s Note: Ray is the director of the University of Tenneessee’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center. Schaffer is a research assistant professor at APAC.