January 24, 2005
Consumers eager to know more about environmental,
social impacts of food they buy, survey finds
By Jennifer McNulty
Heres a heads-up for farmers and food retailers: Consumers
have a strong desire to know more about the origins and safety
of the food they buy, and theyd like to get the information
when they make their purchases.
UCSC researchers found that product
labels and brochures or retail displays were the most
popular sources of information.
Photo: Jennifer McNulty
Thats the word from UCSC researchers who surveyed consumers
to find out what people want to know about their food and what
factors would influence their purchasing decisions.
Food safety topped the list of consumer concerns, perhaps not
surprisingly following headlines about mad cow disease and recurrent
outbreaks of food contaminated with E. coli bacteria.
Consumers also want to know more about the nutritional value
of their food, the treatment of animals in food production,
environmental impacts--including pesticides and genetic engineering--of
food production, and the working conditions of people who labor
in the food industry.
Our goal was to give consumers a voice they might not
have, and the first step was to find out what they want to know,
said Phil Howard, a second-year postdoctoral researcher at UCSCs
Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS),
who conducted the survey with postgraduate researcher Jan Perez.
Food retailers, processors, and growers should all start
looking closely at these issues because people are interested
in supporting them through their purchases. Broadly speaking,
ethical consumerism is an emerging force, and people on the
Central Coast appear eager to make more informed purchases.
Howard and Perez conducted five focus groups in 2003 and in
2004 mailed a 26-question survey to more than 1,000 randomly
selected households in San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, San
Benito, and Monterey Counties; the survey response rate was
48 percent. The survey was funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture
(USDA) grant to foster sustainable agriculture on the Central
From Salinas to Silicon Valley, consumers voiced a strong interest
in learning more about their food. Consumers expressed interest
in knowing more about the wages food workers receive, the influence
of large corporations, and how far food travels before it is
More than 80 percent of survey respondents endorsed the idea
of food labels as a source of the information theyre seeking,
Product labels and brochures or retail displays were
the most popular sources of information, said Howard,
noting that newspapers, magazines, books, and the web were selected
by about half of respondents. People really want the information
when theyre making their purchasing decisions.
In some parts of Europe, Howard noted, meat is packaged with
bar codes and stores are outfitted with computer terminals that
allow consumers to scan the product and call up profiles of
the farm where the food was produced. Europeans are more
committed to the idea of ethical consumption, and regional and
local labels are a lot more prevalent there, said Howard.
The fair-trade movement began in Europe and is already
changing the production practices of products like coffee and
Citing the growing popularity of seals or logos that signify
food meets certain standards, such as the USDAs organic
food label, survey respondents were asked to rank five potential
eco-labels, defined as follows:
Humane--meat, dairy products, or eggs from animals that
havent been treated cruelly
Locally grown--grown within 50 miles of point of purchase
Living wage--provides above-poverty wages to workers
involved in producing the food
U. S. grown--grown in the United States
Small-scale--supports small farms or businesses
Respondents were most enthusiastic about the idea of a humane
label, with more than 30 percent citing it as their first choice,
followed by locally grown (22 percent), living wage (16.5 percent),
U.S. grown (5.9 percent), and small-scale (5.2 percent). Humane
treatment of animals was a very emotional topic in the focus
groups--it came up in all of them, said Howard.
In the survey, respondents were asked to choose only one standard
from different combinations, but Howard noted that most people
found that very difficult; many respondents said
they would prefer one label that represented all of the standards.
People are interested in buying food that is fresh and
that they trust because they know where it came from,
said Howard. Consumers like the idea of supporting the
local economy, and they want to support family farms, which
have a strong emotional appeal to a lot of people.
In a separate question, consumers showed a strong willingness
to pay a price premium for strawberries that would
guarantee a living wage and safe working conditions for farmworkers.
Eighty-four percent of respondents said they were willing to
pay a 5 cent--or 3 percent--price premium on a $1.50 pint of
strawberries for the assurance the standards were being met.
The median price premium people were willing to pay was $1.06
per pint, or 71 percent above the regular price. Given that
strawberry pickers typically earn 10.5 to 12.5 cents per pint,
a 5-cent-per-pint price premium could fund a 40 percent increase
in piece-rate pay, said Howard.
People being surveyed tend to express a greater willingness
to pay than they actually support in the marketplace, but these
results show the potential level of support for a price premium,
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