The SHS paper found that fully “69 percent of consumers think it’s important to understand how their food is produced.” This desire for more information, on the part of consumers, provides an opportunity for producers and their farm/commodity organizations to provide factual information to the general public and enter into a dialogue with them.

In some cases it is consumers who will come to see some production practices differently, once the rationale for the activity is explained to them. In other cases, producers may need to modify their production practices to meet the expectations of the consumer.

SHS argues that “food packaging provides a canvas to show [the] food production story.” Their study indicated that “about 67 percent of consumers would like packaging of meat products to provide more information about the product.; 60 percent want to know if the animal was given growth hormones; 42 percent want to know what medicine the animal was given during its lifetime; 34 percent want to know what the animal’s living conditions were like; and 34 percent want to know where the animal was raised.”

While these questions were once simply the purview of the farmer/rancher, it must be remembered that the consumer is a crucial element in the production process. With their purchase at the retail meat counter they provide the money that makes the whole system work. The production system needs to take consumer wishes into consideration and provide them with the product they want.

One example of this attention to the desires of a subset of consumers is Eggland’s Best Eggs. In one of the coolers in our local grocery store they may have 10-20 percent of the space devoted to eggs, but in that space they give the consumers the choice of brown eggs, white eggs, cage free eggs, and organic eggs—each at a different price point.

On their website they write: “Eggland’s Best hen feed is a special all-natural, all-vegetarian feed that contains healthy grains, canola oil, and an all-natural supplement of rice bran, alfalfa, sea kelp, and Vitamin E—no animal fat, no animal by-products, and no recycled or processed food. We never use hormones, steroids, or antibiotics of any kind.” They even document the environmental rationale for the various packing systems they use for their eggs. Over the last decade, we have seen the size of the Eggland’s Best section grow as consumers have become more health conscious.

Certainly meat production and processing is more complicated than that of eggs, but the point is clear— farmers/ranchers need to pay attention to the changing attitudes of their ultimate customer—the woman or the man at the retail counter. To keep these consumers coming back, producers will need to be transparent about their production practices and be willing to modify those that would reduce demand for the animal protein they produce.

Ultimately there are and will be producers who are attuned to a premium market where the preferences of consumers have an impact on production practices, and there will continue to be producers who will provide an undifferentiated product at a lower price point.

Daryll E. Ray holds the Blasingame Chair of Excellence in Agricultural Policy, Institute of Agriculture, University of Tennessee, and is the Director of UT’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center (APAC). Harwood D. Schaffer is a Research Assistant Professor at APAC. (865) 974-7407; Fax: (865) 974-7298; dray@utk.edu and hdschaffer@utk.edu; http://www.agpolicy.org.

 

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