Food insights reveal that food-conscious consumers seek informationWritten by Saige Albert
In their 2014 consumer trust research report, titled, “Cracking the Code on Food Issues: Insight from Moms, Millenials and Foodies,” the Center for Food Integrity (CFI) looked at the impacts of science on consumers and their trust toward the food system.
“How do we connect when scientific consensus and consumer beliefs are not aligned?” asked CFI.
“The 2014 consumer research is the most comprehensive research we have done at CFI,” said Charlie Arnot, chief executive officer of CFI. “We have more than 600 pages of research results, with lots of good information.”
CFI strives to provide tools to the food system to empower and support those who are interested in building trust.
CFI has conducted research since 2007 to assess consumer trust in relation to national food trends.
The 2014 research sampled 2,005 consumers nationally.
“We also segmented the populations into three communities of interest – 30 percent are moms, 37 percent are millenials and 31 percent are foodies,” said Arnot. “Moms have children, millenials are from ages 18-33, but how do we classify a foodie?”
Foodies were those who scored eight out of 10 for their level of concern as far as attitudes and behaviors and how they relate to food.
Just under 50 percent of the surveyed population did not fall into those groups, and the groups were not mutually exclusive.
“The overall population of our survey respondents reflects the U.S. population as a whole,” Arnot added.
“The issues we selected as stimulus for the research were genetically modified ingredients in food and antibiotic use in animal agriculture,” CFI commented. “Our intent was not to define messages and strategies specific to these issues but to use these issues to develop models that can be applied across food and agriculture.”
At the end of the survey, CFI noted that 63 percent of respondents indicated a high level of concern about the safety of imported food. Additionally, 62 percent were concerned about food safety, and 55 percent had concern with having enough to feed people in the U.S.
Forty-nine percent of respondents had a high level of concern about the humane treatment of farm animals. Roughly the same number was concerned about sustainable faming and having accurate information available to make healthy food choices.
“Women generally express a higher level of concern on all issues relative to men,” said Arnot. “Generally, we have found consumers to have a lower level of concern on most issues this year compared to last year.”
For the targeted groups – moms, millenials and foodies – CFI looked deeper at their concerns.
“Beginning with moms, the rising cost of food was the most important issue, with a mean score of 8.71, on a one to 10 scale,” Arnot explained. “That is out of 18 issues. Very closely behind the rising cost of food were keeping healthy food affordable, rising healthcare costs, rising energy costs and food safety, as well as the U.S. economy.”
Millenials prioritized keeping healthy food affordable, followed by the rising cost of food and rising healthcare costs.
Foodies cited keeping healthy food affordable as their top concern, with a mean score of 9.27 – a score Arnot called “unheard of” on a 10-point scale.
“Food safety was number two for foodies, followed by the rising cost of food,” he continued.
Direction of the industry
CFI also inquired about the direction that the food industry is taking.
“Forty-two percent of respondents thought the food system was going in the right direction, and 30 percent thought it was taking the wrong track,” Arnot said. “Only 27 percent were unsure.”
These numbers mark improvements over last year.
“Almost fully half of foodies believe the system is headed in the right direction,” he continued. “Millenials seem to be more confident that the food system is headed in the right direction, and only one-third of them think it is on the wrong track.”
Moms have a great deal of conflict, with nearly equal proportions believing the food system is on the right track and wrong track and only a slightly smaller percentage of unsure moms.
“One of the things we are challenged by is that some of these issues are supported by science, some are values-based and some are not supported by science,” Arnot said. “We need a better way to connect.”
A meta-analysis of 21 pieces of research on trust in the food system found that three key drivers are influential in developing trust – family, friends and credentialed others; competency or technical capacity in science; and perception of shared values.
Arnot noted that too often, we focus on the second driver, technical capacity in science. When consumers do not get on board with the ideas that science supports, the food industry tends to get more science.
“We repeat the cycle over and over, believing we have an information deficit problem,” he said, noting that lack of scientific information often isn’t the case. “We must not abandon science.”
Most of the questions that consumers have are related to how food is processed or preserved and what ingredients should be used, he continued.
“Consumers ask, should we process food the way we do? Should we preserve food? Should we use genetically modified ingredients?” Arnot said. “Our response has been, ‘Science says we can,’ but can and should are not the same questions.”
Should, he continued, is a question about value and ethics.
While science increases knowledge, it does not necessarily improve consumer trust.
Arnot said, “We know the benefits of science and technology to help make society better if we can find ways to break down these barriers. How we introduce technical and scientific information is key to supporting informed decision making.”
Look for more from CFI’s 2014 consumer research report in a future edition of the Roundup.