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Thursday March 22, 2018

Shoppers are often confused; we know that. As Farmer Goes to Market has reported in the past, consumers may tell surveyors they want foods labeled according to how they're raised or processed. But does that expressed desire signify shoppers are in search of something better, or does it signify that they don't really understand what the terms mean? Recent Nebraska work, for instance, makes the point. Surveyed meat and egg consumers expressed two opposing demands simultaneously: They said they didn't care whether food was certified organic, but they strongly cared whether it was "hormone-free," "non-GMO," and "humanely-raised" (which is essentially organic). That kind of contradiction "suggests some skepticism about consumers’ knowledge," as the scientists delicately phrased it.

Now, here come some more newly published studies that cast doubt on exactly how well your shoppers really understand what they're getting with these types of label claims:

'All-natural' is misleading? Tennessee ag economist Karen Lewis DeLong used a choice experiment to estimate consumer willingness to pay for ribeye steaks that were labeled as:

  • Natural
  • Grass fed
  • Corn fed
  • Fed without genetically modified feed
  • Grown without growth hormones and antibiotics.
  • She chose those particular characteristics because surveys have shown consumers associate many of them with the vague term "natural," which itself has no clear legal definition.

    DeLong then tested whether shoppers changed their willingness to pay a higher price for natural based on whether they were informed about USDA's legal definition, which is simply that it contains no artificial flavors, colors or chemical preservatives and is only minimally processed.

    DeLong theorized that if consumers are not willing to pay a premium once they find out USDA's definition has nothing to do with GMOs, hormones, antibiotics or feed, that has to mean the "natural" claim is misleading. She found:

    • Consumers who came into the study with no knowledge of the "natural" definition showed willingness to pay a premium for the grass-fed, no GM feed, no growth hormones, no antibiotics, and natural labels.
    • Consumers who were then informed of the USDA meaning only maintained a willingness to pay more for grass-fed and no growth hormones labels.
    • She concludes that only consumers unfamiliar with the definition of natural had a significant willingness to pay a premium for natural labeled steak, while consumers familiar with the definition of natural did not.

    Several companies and consumer groups have voiced concerns that the natural label on food products is misleading and should be banned, or at the very least, be redefined. DeLong's findings suggest that concern is a fact, and that calling food "natural" is inflating their costs with no clear benefit.

    "Given these results, it seems plausible that the natural label is misleading to consumers who are uninformed and unfamiliar with its meaning...," she writes.

    Functional label illiteracy? In the second study, U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Alexander Persoskie analyzed data from the Health Information National Trends Survey, a nationally representative survey of health information seeking among 3,185 U.S. adults in the winter of 2013. Persoskie asked participants to read an ice cream nutrition label and answer four questions that tested their ability to apply basic arithmetic and understanding of percentages to interpret the label. He also asked participants their intake of sugar-sweetened soda, fruits and vegetables to guage whether any connection existed between ability to understand labels and eating habits. His results:

    • Nearly one in four could not determine the calorie content of the full ice-cream container.
    • Just over one in five couldn't estimate how many servings they'd have to eat to consume 60 g of carbohydrates.
    • He found 42 percent were unable to guess how many calories they'd save by giving up one serving a day.
    • Similarly, 41 percent couldn't calculate the percentage daily value of calories in a single serving.
    • People who had not graduated from high school had the poorest performance on the four nutrition label questions: More than a third of this group could not correctly answer any nutrition label questions, and fewer than 9 percent could correctly answer all four questions. However, even a college education didn't guarantee understanding. Only 54 percent of people who had earned a 4-year college degree could correctly answer all four nutrition label questions.

    The good news, if there's any, is he found higher scores for label understanding were associated with consuming more vegetables and less sugar-sweetened soda, although only the association with soda consumption remained significant after adjusting for demographic factors.

    So much for science. As part of its month surveying of just over 1,000 U.S. consumers, Oklahoma State's ag economics department set out to test whether 7 percent of U.S. citizens really believe chocolate milk comes only from brown cows, as was reported in a previous study. So they asked.

    Again, there's good news and bad in the results. The good? Only 1.6 percent of respondents in the Oklahoma State study attributed chocolate milk to brown cows and white milk to white cows. And the bad?

    Almost one in every five of the same respondents answered the question, "True or false: the sun revolves around the earth" as true.


In patnership with the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association

The Nebraska Grocery Industry Association was formed in 1903 by a group of Omaha grocery store owners, wholesalers and vendors to allow them to promote independent food merchants and members of the food industry, and to promote education and cooperation among its membership. NGIA continues to represent grocery store owners and operators, along with wholesalers and vendors located throughout Nebraska, by promoting their success through proactive government relations, innovative solutions and quality services. NGIA offers efficient and economical programs. NGIA also lobbies on both a state and national level, ensuring that the voice of the food industry in Nebraska is heard by our representatives.

Supported by the Nebraska Corn Board

The Nebraska Corn Board, on behalf of 23,000 corn farmers in Nebraska, invests in market development, research, promotion and education of corn and value-added products. The board aims to work closely with the farmer-to-consumer food chain, to educate everyone about the role corn has in our everyday healthy lives. The Nebraska Corn Board is proud to sponsor the Farmer Goes to Market program to help bring its mission of expanding demand and value of Nebraska corn to the consumer, through the strongest touch point in that chain: the Nebraska retail grocer.

Supported by the Nebraska Farm Bureau

The farm and ranch families represented by Nebraska Farm Bureau are proud sponsors of the Farmer Goes to Market program. We take great pride in supporting Nebraska's agricultural foundation. A key part of that effort is to make sure we produce safe and affordable food. This newsletter is an important part of our effort to connect the two most important parts of the food chain -- the farmer and the grocer -- with the goal of increasing consumer awareness and information about how their food is raised in Nebraska.

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