Researchers who conducted a study in September 2009 sought to find which issue-based product claims are most important to consumers when making specialty grocery and restaurant menu decisions.  

beyond-organic.jpgIn “Beyond Organic:  How Evolving Consumer Concerns Influence Food Purchases,” researchers from Context Marketing released their results of a survey of six hundred affluent and educated consumers between the ages of 20 and 64 who were interviewed about their perceptions of quality claims.

Both men and women, who were equally represented in the study, seemed to be fairly well informed about food quality claims and the issues behind them.  Field traceability is one claim that seems on the upswing with consumers, most likely a result of headlines in recent years reporting recalls of field-contaminated produce.  

While the results confirm the strong influence of low price on the purchase decision, they also illustrate several trends, including a shift away from some familiar quality claims such as organic and free-range.  It is not that these terms are no longer valued, rather that newer claims have captured consumer’s attention.  

The fact that “organic” is ranked lower in importance by consumers is possibly due more to shifting food trends than to a lessening of enthusiasm for organic foods.  As more and more “organic” products came to the market in the past few years, many shoppers began to consider the organic claim a new standard and shifted their attention to new issues.  This raises the question of how quickly some of the newer quality claims will become more accepted practices and which issues and claims will replace them in order to meet rising consumer expectations.

Food Safety tops the list of consumer concerns about food quality.  The claims consumers found most meaningful had to do with things consumers do not want to see in their food, such as mercury, pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics.  Consumers also care about where their food comes from, which could be a reflection of their assumption that origin influences safety.  Claims such as “Produced in the USA” and “locally grown” are important to many shoppers.  

Fifty-seven percent of those directly asked about the safety of the food supply said they were “very concerned” or “definitely concerned”.  An equal number expressed concern about the safety of imported foods.

Price still remains a very important purchase factor, even among more affluent consumers.  What researchers found notable was not that 64 percent agreed with the statement, “Price is the main reason why I purchase a product in the supermarket,” but that 36 percent did not.  And even among those who agreed, other factors matter.  Sixty percent of respondents reported they are willing to pay up to 10 percent more for food that promises to be healthier, safer, or produced to higher ethical standards.  

There is an age skew in willingness to pay a premium for quality.  About 70 percent of the youngest group (age 20-29) reported a willingness to pay more, compared with around 55 percent for each of the other two groups (30-49 and 50-64).

The emphasis on safety should not overshadow the importance of ethical concerns when it comes to food purchase influences.  Food producers and manufactures need to pay attention to ethical issues because so many consumers do.  There are two reasons for this.  

First, ethical issues are frequently linked to safety concerns and ethical behavior can add credibility to assurances about safety.  For example, a consumer may believe that if an animal is treated humanely, it has also been subject to other “responsible practices” that allay safety concerns, such as being raised without artificial hormones.  Many consumers see ethical claims as an important part of a cluster of responsible behaviors shown by food producers and manufacturers.  

Another reason, and of great importance to marketers, is that ethical and socially responsible behavior builds a stronger relationship with consumers which will serve a company well over a long period of time.  Ethical food claims, while perhaps not a primary factor driving food purchases, are an important way for companies to build trust and loyalty with many consumers, especially with more affluent shoppers.  

While there are some differences when analyzing responses by age and gender, they often are not large even if they are statistically significant.  What is notable is that most food quality issues concern the majority of men and women, and all age groups.