Deficit of trusted sources, conflicting values cause disconnect

Consumers are interested in not only what they buy, but how it was made and who/what was affected in bringing it to market.

Consumers today are interested in not only what they buy, but how it was made and who/what was affected in bringing it to market, according to Purdue University researchers N.J.O. Widmar, C. Croney and M.G.S. McKendree.

At the same time, Widmar said here at JAM 2013 in Indianapolis, Ind., that consumer’s tastes, preferences and values are highly variable and heterogeneous so determining which agricultural system is ethically superior to another is complicated, especially without consensus on what makes a production method or system “good.” 

Even consumers’ interpretations of simple labels such as all-natural vary widely. A survey conducted had respondents reporting that they associate such labels with improved animal welfare practices, no antibiotics, no hormones, no preservatives added, improved taste and improved food safety. 

As labels such as “all-natural” appear, Widmar said it is important for producers to understand what they are perceived to mean, and how and to what extent purchasing them aligns with a consumer’s values. For example, she said, 60% of consumers believe that an all natural label means improved animal welfare, 56% believe it means improved taste and 64% believe it means improved food safety.

Along with perceptions, the consumer’s knowledge base, information sources and past experiences may also influence their demand for alternative practices, she said. 

As for where consumers seek animal welfare information, Widmar said they generally relied on the Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and to a lesser extent, federal government agencies and “others.” More recently, when asked this question with the option to select not having any source for animal welfare information, the majority (55%) selected no source, the researchers said. 

As debates continue about what animal agriculture should look like, it is important to recognize that deficits of trusted sources of objective information, combined with underlying value notions may explain why consumers’ purchasing behavior may or may not reflect their stated preferences. Understanding the value that consumers place on various systems and their attributes and the basis for forming their opinions enables constructive discussion surrounding how agricultural industries can meet consumers’ demands, and do so profitably, Widmar said.

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