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Consumers Have Questions — But Who Has Answers

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Jeopardy is one of the most popular and longest running television game shows. A key to its success is that it takes a basic trivia game and turns it upside down by giving the answer and then asking contestants to provide the question.  A form of Jeopardy is being played by consumers when it comes to their food choices. They are giving answers with the choices they make, and food producers and retailers are left to try and figure out the questions they are asking.

 

For example, consumers are more likely to buy — and even pay a higher price for — a product labeled “organic.”  Those who produce organic food products say this is because consumers want food products free of chemicals. However, this is not what they are really saying, since most are as clueless about organic production methods as they are about regularly produced food products.  Most consumers have the impression that processed food is bad. Thus, something called “organic” or “natural” must be better. So as Jeopardy host Alex Trebeck would put it, “In the category safe food, the correct question is ‘What sounds like it comes from a farm not a factory?'”

 

Likewise consumers have a real fear of hormones in their food supply.  This despite the fact that hormones naturally occur in all animals that produce food products.  Yet, labels on food products and above dairy cases proudly proclaim “hormone-free.” Even though biology is a required subject in school, most people have no clue on what hormones are and how they work. So what consumers are really saying is “Don’t put stuff in my food that I do not understand.”  Or as Alex would put it, “In the category ‘Got Milk,’ the correct question is ‘What can I give my kids to drink that is good for them, but won’t make them grow up with two heads?'”

 

In the past few weeks, several major retail grocery and fast food chains have caved to pressure from animal activists and started sourcing pork products from suppliers who do not use gestation crates. These food retailers have been duped into believing that consumers care about animal wellbeing when making food purchases.  While it is true that people care that animals are treated humanely, research has shown that  there is a real disconnect between that concern and food choices.  Consumers don’t really want to know too much about how their pork gets onto those little white trays in their meat case. What they do want to know is that the meat is safe, tasty, and cheap. Alex would agree that the correct question in the “This little piggy went to market” category is “What is a cut of meat that I can afford, that my family will eat, that cooks in 30 minutes, and I can feel good about buying?”

 

In a Jeopardy game there is one winner and two losers. The winner is the contestant who comes up with the most correct questions.  Things are not quite as clear up in the “Food Jeopardy” game. A just-released Gate-to-Plate Survey, designed to gain insights into how U.S. moms feel and think about their food and the food choices they make for their families, showed that more than 70 percent of moms have questions or concerns about how their food is grown or raised.  Figuring out what those questions really are and providing the true answers is not easy.  Yet, making that connection between consumers and producers  and exchanging questions and answers is vital in an era of food recalls, media scare stories, and undercover animal abuse videos.

 

 by Gary Truitt