Saunders: Consumers seek verification when making food purchase decisionsWritten by Natasha Wheeler
Fort Collins, Colo. – “Consumers look for products that are ethically grounded, scientifically verified and economically viable, and they want the assurance of third-party verification,” stated Leann Saunders at the International Livestock Forum in Fort Collins, Colo. on Jan. 13.
Saunders is the president and co-founder of Where Our Food Comes From, Inc., a company that provides independent auditing of food production practices. Her business gives her insight into market trends and consumer demands.
“Brands compete against each other. They are looking to differentiate, and they are looking to have brand trust with consumers,” she explained.
Third-party verification provides standards that can be measured and used for continuous improvement.
“Consumers are not just trusting a company on the package,” she continued. “They want to trust it, but they want it verified.”
To understand what consumers are looking for in their products, Saunders’ company did a survey across the U.S. through different retailers and restaurants.
“A high percentage of consumers would pay more for quality and say environmental sustainability is important to them,” she commented.
She listed other consumer concerns in meat, dairy and produce including the use of hormones, antibiotics and pesticides; genetic modification; local sourcing; environmental sustainability; and the humane treatment of animals.
“Collectively as industries, we have to get out and make the effort to really have a conversation with consumers,” she commented.
When Saunders married her husband, who went to school at Yale, she found it interesting that she became a focal point of conversation amongst his friends.
“I was an oddity,” Saunders explained.
Her husband’s friends wanted to know what it was like to grow up on a ranch and in the ag industry.
“There is an opportunity for reconnecting those people who have lost that hands-on experience and aren’t involved in production agriculture,” she said.
In 1950, 11.6 percent of U.S. citizens were farmers, farm managers and farm laborers. By 2010, only 0.6 percent of the U.S. population was employed in farming.
Sharing the story
“Fewer people are connected to the food system, and there is a reduced understanding and appreciation for how food is produced,” Saunders noted.
Consumers rely on media, and they have continual, easy access to information.
“There is constant confusion over what is right, healthy, safe and cost effective,” she noted.
Typical consumers want the production story told on their terms. They want to trust that story and to feel comfortable about the safety of the product. Consumers also want the freedom of choice.
“How we talk to those consumers is important,” she stated.
Consumers don’t want to feel stupid, and they want to feel more comfortable about their choices.
“If we are unwilling to be transparent, even to the point where it may be uncomfortable at times, then they think we have something to hide,” she explained.
Eight in 10 shoppers believe that food and grocery companies should know where every ingredient comes from.
“More home cooks are paying attention to how their food is sourced, especially in the meat department,” she said.
Many consumers want access to product information in the grocery store, with 71 percent saying they want to be able to read it on the label.
“Consumers care about these issues. They want more information, they want us talking to them, and they do care about it,” she noted.
In 1994, survey results showed that consumers were worried about taste, convenience, nutrition, variety and price.
“Those things are still important, but now we also have all these social causes such as environment, sustainability and animal welfare,” Saunders commented.
She added that regardless of whether it is good or bad, there is a strong discussion in today’s market around the treatment of animals.
“Animal care and wellbeing concerns are a real issue for global food brands,” she stated.
Also, today’s market is brand conscious.
“Consumers are interested in patronizing restaurants and buying brands that reflect their own values,” Saunders added.
Therefore, it is more than a public relations statement for brands supporting particular practices.
“They need to be actively engaged in trying to figure out within their industry how to meet consumer expectations,” she commented.
She believes that consumers are open to information and willing to listen. When they are involved in conversations, they have an opportunity to understand production practices.
“Verification starts at the source, and at the end of the day, it’s about us being able to transparently, honestly and authentically communicate with the consumer,” Saunders said.