What trends are currently influencing consumers' food purchasing decisions and perception? That was the purpose of an August survey of U.S. consumers.
Maeve Webster, director of research and consulting with Datassential, presented findings during a food system thought-leadership event hosted by Charleston|Orwig. The study was conducted specifically for Charleston|Orwig and involved asking 2,600 consumers and 360 operators of retail locations and restaurants about specific purchasing habits and knowledge related to sustainability-driven labels.
According to Webster, the findings showed that organic is here to stay. When asked which sustainable items were purchased in the last month, she reported that locally sourced and organic foods were the largest two categories consumers mentioned and have shown a significant increase since the previous study in 2004.
The study also found that these consumers were willing to pay more for organic products than conventionally grown ones.
Likewise, local food was found to be a top priority for both consumers and operators. More than half of the operators of retail locations and restaurants indicated that they currently offer locally sourced ingredients.
Webster said consumers most often defined "local" as where the food was purchased. She said most felt that food should be grown within 15 miles of where it was purchased.
Younger consumers were found to more readily embrace emerging food categories. Webster said people under age 35 were twice as likely to purchase organic food (50%) as those over age 55 (28%). The same trends held true for locally sourced food (52% versus 47%), hormone- and antibiotic-free food (42% versus 17%) and sustainable food (40% versus 20%).
The study found that taste was still the most important purchasing characteristic. In fact, Webster said consumers identified taste, price and food safety as the three most important characteristics affecting their food purchases, and all three ranked above concerns related to sustainability.
Another finding was that respondents believe the government is responsible for ensuring that there is enough food for all consumers, with the following breakdown:
• 58% believe the U.S. government is responsible;
• 57% believe the governments of other countries are responsible;
• Less than 40% believe major food manufacturers, corporate farmers or other industry groups are responsible;
• Fewer than a third believe U.S. consumers are responsible, and
• Only 25% are very concerned about ensuring that there is enough food to feed the world.
Webster explained that more government involvement means more policies and regulation related to food production. She also noted how the food industry has been having much discussion related to feeding the exploding world population, but consumers don't believe food producers are the ones responsible for creating the solution.
In regard to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), she said the level of knowledge in the marketplace is very low, with more than 50% of consumers believing they have never purchased genetically modified produce or food made with GMOs.
Only 11% want to avoid purchasing any product made from GMOs, while 52% believe food companies must identify foods that include GMOs. Consumers are asking the food industry to be transparent in its messaging related to GMOs, even if their awareness of GMOs in food is low, Webster said.
Finally, when asked if food manufacturers are taking the right steps to address concerns, Webster said the responses were overwhelmingly positive. While there is room for improvements, the results were favorable and indicate that the food industry is moving in a good direction when it comes to how it responds to issues related to food safety, food security, health and wellness and even sustainability.
The protection and care of farm animals scored a little further down the list, with less than 50% of respondents feeling that the industry is taking the right steps to address the issues at hand.