Consumers value freshness and safety most when buying livestock products.
EACH consumer has a set of values that come into play when making food purchases, and the level of importance consumers place on each value allows food producers and distributors to better meet the needs of their end users.
A recent nationwide online survey of U.S. consumers by Kansas State University found that freshness and safety were the most important values consumers placed on buying popular livestock products. The findings for livestock-specific products were consistent with prior research examining consumers' general food values.
Ted Schroeder, professor and livestock economist for Kansas State Research & Extension, worked with other faculty and graduate students in the department of agricultural economics on this research.
Schroeder said as consumers make decisions to purchase food products, they might think about taste, underlying production practices, concerns they have about production, safeness, freshness, quality and price, to name a few.
"It's about a host of things that might go through consumers' minds as they purchase a product," he said. "As you compile those into a list, how do they rank? And, do they rank the same for different products?"
The prior research (Lusk and Briggeman, 2009) found that safety, nutrition, taste, price and natural were the top five values consumers desired out of 11 total values assessed for general food products.
Schroeder and his graduate students wanted to see if similar results could be found when consumers considered buying specific livestock products.
"We wanted some diversity among those products," said Garrett Lister, a Kansas State graduate student who worked on the study. "We also wanted them to be specific, which is why we kept them in the livestock sector."
The products they chose to examine included milk, ground beef, beef steak and chicken breast. The 11 food values they chose to examine included freshness, health, hormone-free/antibiotic-free, animal welfare, taste, price, safety, convenience, nutrition, origin and environmental impact. These are similar to the general food product study, aside from a few modifications that apply to livestock products, such as freshness.
"There are more issues with spoilage in some of these livestock products than food in general," Lister said.
A total of 1,950 people responded to the livestock products survey, which was a big jump from the 176 respondents included in the prior general food product survey. This was mainly due to the livestock products survey being conducted online versus the general food products survey being conducted by mail, according to Marcus Brix, another Kansas State graduate student who worked on the study.
Safety was the most important value in the general food products study, and it was either the first or second most important value for milk, ground beef, beef steak and chicken breast, along with freshness.
In contrast, the values of environmental impact, animal welfare, origin and convenience were less important for the livestock products, and this was also comparable to the prior research.
Price ranked in the middle of the list, Lister said. This was because some consumers valued price as one of their key components in making a decision on what foods to buy, while others felt it was less important.
Brix said economists often presume that price is the most important factor in choice because price is an important driver of purchasing behavior. Researchers tend to assume that food is going to be safe when purchased at a retail outlet. However, the average consumer doesn't necessarily have that presumed trust in food safety.
"A majority of consumers still question some things about their food," Brix said. "If they think that one product is more safe than another at a different price point, they are going to be less responsive to the price and more responsive to the product freshness or safety of said product."
Consumers want products that deliver a high-quality eating experience, Schroeder said, and this study reflects that.
"Freshness, nutritional components and health attributes are desirable, and consumers absolutely demand a product that is safe," he said. "These are messages we've been saying for a long time, and they've shown up remarkably strong across all four of these particular (livestock) products."
Social values — including animal welfare, environmental impact and origin, for example — aren't irrelevant, Schroeder said. Some segments of society hold those as more important than others, but overall, they aren't the major drivers that lead the average consumer to purchase a particular product.
Understanding some of these consumer food value preferences helps the food industry know where to focus its marketing and production energy to ensure that it delivers on that high-quality eating experience.