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Study ranks production attributes most important to consumers

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"No growth hormones" ranked as number-one consumer concern with on-farm practices.

Consumers are increasingly interested in how their food is produced and look for claims such as no growth hormones, no genetically modified organisms (GMOs), no antibiotics, etc., on food products.

While many studies have focused on consumers’ willingness to pay for individual food attributes, they have not ranked which production attributes consumers say are most important to them. However, a new University of Illinois study explored the topic and found what is most important to consumers when buying four different products: beef, chicken, milk, and eggs.

“For many consumers, buying a gallon of milk is much more complex than finding the preferred fat content and expiration date. They want to know how the cows were treated, what they were fed, whether they received growth hormones or antibiotics, whether the milk is organic and so on,” according to the report.

The study determined the importance of seven specific on-farm practices regarding consumers’ purchasing decisions:

  • Animals were not administered growth hormones.
  • GMOs were not used in the production of the product (non-GMO).
  • Animals were humanely raised.
  • Animals were not administered antibiotics.
  • Animals were raised in a free-range (or cage-free) environment.
  • Animals were grass fed (or raised on a vegetarian diet).
  • The product is certified organic.

The top three attributes overall were “no growth hormones”, “non-GMO” and “humanely raised,” although there were differences in importance based on product type. The “organic” attribute was ranked lowest in importance for consumers.

“The biggest surprise in the study is that ‘no growth hormones’ is the number-one concern consumers have across the board on all of these products,” University of Illinois food economist and lead researcher Brenna Ellison said. “It’s odd, because growth hormones are already prohibited for poultry products. Further, products that are certified organic or humanely raised also prohibit the use of growth hormones in animals. Ultimately, it means consumers are spending unnecessary time looking for labels that reflect this particular attribute.”

The presence of such labeling claims can influence the sales of one product over another identical product, the researchers added. In fact, if one producer labels its packages of chicken as having “no growth hormones” and another producer doesn’t, the latter is at a disadvantage when consumers are selecting for that specific attribute, they said.

“Even though both brands of chicken are hormone free, by government mandate, the producer who didn’t pay to add a label may suffer. Products that carry the ‘no growth hormones’ claim must note that these are prohibited by the government on the packaging, but this is usually in the fine print, where consumers may or may not be looking,” the researchers said.

The lack of importance of the “organic” claim was also surprising to Ellison and her co-authors, Kathleen Brooks and Taro Mieno of the University of Nebraska.

“When most people hear the term ‘organic,’ they think of produce, fruits and vegetables," she said. "I don’t think the term translates as well to animals. Consequently, consumers may not understand that the organic certification for meat and other animal products actually already includes a lot of these other production attributes.”

Ellison said the fact that producers keep putting multiple claims on their products, even though broad claims like “organic” and “humanely raised” encompass almost all of the other production attributes, suggests that producers may be skeptical that consumers know the full definition of these labels. “They keep adding more labels to make sure consumers can find all of the things they want, even though one label might do the job,” she said.

Labels provide a way for consumers to express their opinions by voting with their dollars, the researchers noted, adding that consumers can purchase products with labels that cover concerns that are important to them.

“Choosing to buy milk without traces of hormones or antibiotics may be driven more by concerns for our own health than the health of the animal, but treatment of the animal is also important to people. The results of the study show that consumers place a greater importance on the ‘humanely raised’ attribute for milk and eggs – animals that keep producing versus those that go to slaughter,” Ellison said.

The study -- “Which Livestock Production Claims Matter Most to Consumers?” -- appears in Agriculture & Human Values. The research was supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food & Agriculture #ILLU-470-356, with funding from the American Jersey Cattle Assn./National All-Jersey Inc.

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