We have all become accustomed to seeing labels on food that boast of what is not in the food product: antibiotic free, GMO free, hormone free, and taste free. Labels that make claims about how the product was produced are also common: organic, cage free, or raised in air conditioning with cable TV. Yet, recently, on a trip through my local grocery store, I was stopped dead in my tracks by an egg display that had so many different claims you could hardly figure out what the product was. Not only did the package list all the things the egg layer did not eat or was not injected with, it gave extraordinary details on how the bird lives its life and about the kind of people who raised the chicken as well as their values. This level of label lunacy is in response to the ever increasing level of misinformation and mistrust that today’s consumer has.
A recent study by the University of Illinois indicates that these food attribute labels are driving purchasing decisions more so than the nutrition, health, and even price factors. “For many consumers, buying a gallon of milk is much more complex than finding the preferred fat content and expiration date. They want to know how the cows were treated, what they were fed, whether they received growth hormones or antibiotics, whether the milk is organic, and so on,” according to the report. What is even more of a concern is the fact that these labels are not regulated and do not have to be factual. For example, poultry products — by law — cannot contain growth hormones. Yet, many packages of chicken in the meat case are labeled as hormone free. University of Illinois food economist and lead researcher Brenna Ellison said, “It’s odd, because growth hormones are already prohibited for poultry products. Further, products that are certified organic or humanely raised also prohibit the use of growth hormones in animals. Ultimately, it means consumers are spending unnecessary time looking for labels that reflect this particular attribute.”
The study identified 7 attributes consumers look for the most. The top three attributes overall were “no growth hormones,” “non-GMO,” and “humanely raised.” What I find particularly ironic is that all three are subjective and not always verifiable with testing. When using these labels as a guide, consumers are not buying any factual, scientific, or regulatory assurance but rather comfort and confidence. If the attribute labels make us feel good , then we will buy it.
“The biggest surprise in the study is that ‘no growth hormones’ is the number-one concern consumers have across the board on all of these products,” Ellison said. This is another red flag since the use of growth hormones was never a universal practice in animal agriculture, has declined sharply in recent years, and, as of January 1 is severely regulated by new FDA regulations. So, consumer buying decisions are being driven by a false fear of a virtually non-existent threat. “Products that carry the ‘no growth hormones’ claim must note that these are prohibited by the government on the packaging, but this is usually in the fine print, where consumers may or may not be looking,” the researchers said.
The motivation and mindset of today’s consumer combined with the monumental amount of misinformation they have should be very worrisome for those of us involved in the food production business.
By Gary Truitt