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What's on the consumer's mind when buying livestock products?

When it comes to buying livestock products, consumers value freshness and safety most, according to a recent Kansas State study.

A look around the local grocery store might show images of consumers reading meat labels or checking the expiration date on a gallon of milk. Each consumer has a set of values when making food purchases, and the level of importance placed on each value by consumers allow for food producers and distributors to better meet the needs of their end user.

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 — milk, ground beef, beef steak and chicken breast. 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?"

Details of the study

The prior research by Lusk and Briggeman in 2009 found that safety, nutrition, taste, price and natural were the top five values consumers desired out of the 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 (livestock) 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 popular 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. Adding freshness was one of those modifications.

"There's 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 online nature of the livestock products survey versus the mailed method of the general food products survey, said 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 first or second most important for milk, ground beef, beef steak and chicken breast. Freshness was the other top value for livestock products. 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 fell 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 purchase behavior. Researchers tend to assume food is going to be safe when purchased at a retail outlet. However, consumers in general don'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."

A research paper explaining all of the findings from the livestock products consumer survey is available at Food Values Applied to Livestock Products.

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