Translating Food Technology

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Thursday April 26, 2018

When it comes to labeling foods as to what farmers do—and don't do—the contradictions abound:

  • Consumers say they want "welfare-friendly," but "raised without antibiotics" is more likely, not less likely, to make animals suffer needlessly.
  • Consumers say they want "sustainable," but by decreasing the efficiency of the food chain, "GMO-free" actually reduces environmental sustainability.
  • Consumers say they want "cage-free" so hens don't suffer, but research shows more birds die and are wounded, on average, in barns that don't put them in cages.

It's a food-labeling jungle out there, and new research shows it's getting more confusing. Do consumers know what they really want?

University of Nebraska ag economists Kate Brooks and Taro Mieno, working with a fellow economist from Illinois, try to answer that thorny question—at least about livestock-raising—in an upcoming issue of the journal Agriculture and Human Values. They point out that although the research is "extensive" showing that consumers say they want products labeled as organic or with animal-welfare claims, the trouble is most of the science only asks consumers to consider one production claim on a label at a time. Although that makes the experimentation easier to carry out, it bears little resemblence to the stew of differing labels shoppers now face in the store.

So the Nebraska researchers instead subjected sampled consumers to a scale that forced them to rank as "best" or "worst" differing side-by-side production claims, including:

  • Certified organic
  • Humanely raised
  • Grass-fed (for cattle) or vegetarian diet (for chickens)
  • No growth hormones
  • No antibiotics
  • Free-range (cattle) or cage-free (chickens)

After weeding out practicing vegans, respondents who didn't reply completely and people who don't regularly shop for meat, milk and eggs, the researchers ended up with 1,039 responses. Their best/worst question structure allowed them to place each production claim on a relative scale, compared to one another, of importance to consumers. They found:

The most important production claims were "no growth hormones," "no genetically-modified organism" and "humanely raised." Together, these three claims captured three out of four shares of preference claims for beef, milk, chicken and eggs. The "no antibiotics" claim ranked in the middle importance for all products, while the "free-range/cagefree," "grass-fed/vegetarian diet" and "certified organic" claims were ranked as the least important. Women were more likely to prefer the no hormones claim compared to men, who were more likely to prefer the free-range/cage-free and grassfed/vegetarian diet production claims.

Which label claims count?

The study offers little to point to the logic of consumer interest in such "absence labeling" product claims:

  • The ag economists found it particularly interesting that low- and medium-income shoppers tended to rank the humanely raised claim as more important than high-income ones did, in contrast to previous research and conventional wisdom that the opposite is true. In their study, high-income families tended to prefer the no antibiotics and organic production claims more than the low-income families did. Another surprising finding: While they expected consumers with a farming background to have different preferences for production claims than shoppers with no farm background, no differences were observed between the two groups.
  • Even though the "no growth hormones" claim was one of the most important traits across all product types, no growth hormones are used in chicken or egg production in this country and haven't been for almost a half-century—a fact USDA requires processors to remind consumers of on every package of chicken labeled as grown without antibiotics. Milk marketed as produced without use of recombinant growth hormone is likewise required to be labeled stating no science exists to prove it's any different from regular milk.
  • As Farmer Goes to Market has reported before, the seemingly simple term "animal welfare" covers some complex nuances that are often unsubstantiated and even contradictory. Yet "humanely raised" ranked relatively high in all product categories.
  • This latest study purposely excluded an entire category of common label the researchers considered too vague, including "agriculturally sustainable," "environmentally friendly" and "natural." While they may describe how some farmers raise animals, their precise definitions were deemed too unclear to the researchers to test, and likely less clear to consumers. How they would have affected the rankings is unknown.
  • Although shoppers across the board ranked "certified organic" as the least important trait to look for when shopping, the irony is that obtaining an organic certification from USDA means the farmer must to some degree incorporate all of the other tested traits those shoppers rated as more important. Whether shoppers' devaluing of the certified organic claim comes out of ignorance about what it means or out of some desire for something else wasn't clear. However, with the scientist's typical flair for the understatement, the Nebraska researchers did note that shoppers' expressed desire for multiple claims on the same package instead of the umbrella organic claim does "suggest some skepticism about consumers’ knowledge."

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