Consumer insights on food
What do the consumers think? That’s the question farmers and ranchers ask themselves because as food producers the answer affects our bottom line. Unfortunately, “consumers” don’t fit into the same box so the neighbor you talk to may or may not be expressing the same view point other consumers express. And, of course, are the consumers we deal with in Wyoming different than the consumers in say Los Angeles or Dallas?The US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance annually surveys consumer attitudes about food. At their April 3 meeting they discussed the results of the survey. The survey talked to general consumers and those who were labeled as “consumer food connectors”. The later are consumers that not only make the decisions on purchasing food, but are also actively using their voice to influence food decisions of friends and family. These folks were also selected because they didn’t have a strong bias against conventional farming. So, what did they find out?
Well, there are five “insights” that are interesting. The first insight is “Americans are increasingly confident with the way farmers and ranchers grow food in the US (although there is a lot of room for growth).” Thirty-four percent of consumers and 35 percent of the connectors feel they trust farmers and ranchers. Not a majority by any stretch but it’s almost 10 percent better than two years ago when they asked these same groups.
The second insight is “Americans are increasingly looking to ‘clean’ alternatives from traditional meat production.” This “clean” concept means that consumers want to move away from the conventionally raised animals towards a so called “clean diet” which isn’t exactly defined, but tends towards plant based substitutions for dairy and protein. This would suggest the concept of test tube meat will resonate with consumers unless we as an industry change their perceptions.
The third insight, which was a little surprising to me, is “Americans are questioning the value of organic products (and local continues to reign supreme).” While consumers and connectors are questioning the value of organic products, they are still low in support for conventional farming. The concept of “natural farming” has been tested the last couple of years and support for natural farming is similar to organic. As the organic industry continues to work to define what is organic and what isn’t you may see more emphasis on the natural farming area by consumers. One of the comments from a survey respondent said, “We need food. Non-GMO organic is a bunch of crap.” This comment may indicate the consumers are starting to look at the GMO/Non-GMO debate a little closer.
The fourth insight is “Americans continue to carefully consider labels when making food purchases (but little has changed from 2016).” Both consumers and connectors surveyed say that over 50 percent of the time they often read labels. Consumers and connectors diverge quite a bit however in the number who always or seldom read labels, with consumers seldom reading labels at a much higher percentage than the connectors. Both groups are concerned about hormones and antibiotics with 64 percent of the connectors looking for no added hormones and 61 percent looking for no antibiotic use. Forty-six percent of consumers look to no hormone and antibiotic labeled products.
The fifth insight is “More Americans are cautiously optimistic about the treatment of food animals in the US.” A mixed bag for producers, but we do seem to be making some headway on some of the issues like animal welfare and some of the biotech issues, but still need to educate consumers about the use of hormones and antibiotics in animals. Certainly, there needs to be further emphasis to consumers on some of the benefits modern agricultural practices are providing to that group they refer to as the “movable middle” on these practices.
Another insight from the survey is that many consumers express a fear of processed foods and consider that a bigger issue than agriculture topics. It’s interesting to see that trend and compare it to food trends a couple of decades ago, where we were being told the American consumer wants “ready to eat” foods that can be popped into the micro-wave and heated up and served in 15 minutes or less. What this will do the frozen food cases in our grocery stores will be interesting.
By Ken Hamilton, Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation Executive Vice President