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March 27, 2008
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates each year, 76 million Americans are sickened—5,000 fatally—due to food-borne hazards. Food safety has been in the spotlight in recent years, as headlines regarding “mad cow” disease, poisoned pet food and contamination of products ranging from produce to peanut butter are becoming more common and yield widespread health implications. The latest government ruling that products made from cloned animals do not have to be labeled as such propels consumer concern to a new level where even consumers’ ability to make informed choices is being undermined.
Mounting concerns over food safety have consumers searching for alternatives. Their desire to regain control over what they consume is revealed in many emerging attitudes and behaviors.
According to research conducted by The Natural Marketing Institute (NMI), two-thirds of consumers read food labels. One increasing concern surrounding food label monitoring centers around where the food ingredient came from.
Despite the fact that food imports are on the rise, less than 1 percent of imported food is inspected by FDA, which in recent years has suffered from shrinking resources due to significant cutbacks. It stands to reason, then, that consumer concern would be high regarding ingredients sourced from other countries. In fact, NMI research shows approximately two-thirds of consumers are concerned about foods and beverages containing ingredients from countries outside of the United States. This fear may also be driving a “closer to home” mentality, with almost one-fifth of consumers indicating they check the “country of origin” most often when reviewing a food label, a trend that has prompted numerous American-based manufacturers and producers to promote a “Made in the U.S.A” label. This topic has tremendous implications to the nutritional ingredient supply chain based on the current level of global sourcing.
In addition to concern over the source of ingredients, consumers are also becoming wary of the ingredients themselves and their effects on personal health. Some concerns are resulting in consumers’ outright ban of certain food items from their diet and are leading consumers to make very specific food choices. According to NMI’s 2007 Health and Wellness Trends Database™, nearly half of U.S. consumers avoid products with high fructose corn syrup and nearly two-thirds try to limit trans-fats in their diet. In addition, more than half of consumers don’t want their stores to carry foods that have been genetically modified (GM). One in four consumers even goes as far as to look for a short list of recognizable ingredients when reading food labels, in an effort to avoid ingredients with which they are not familiar (or cannot pronounce). And that is only the beginning of consumers’ food label monitoring behavior (Figure 1).
Increase in Organics Use
Ultimately, in consumers’ quest to select foods that are free of toxins and made with high quality nutritional ingredients, many consumers are driven to a healthier lifestyle. In fact, approximately two-thirds of consumers indicated they first started using natural and organic foods, including organic produce, packaged foods and milk, to avoid pesticides, toxins, GM ingredients, hormones and antibiotics (Figure 2). It’s not surprising, since over half of consumers believe the use of preservatives and pesticides have caused increased food allergies (52 percent). Even with the plethora of fortified foods and beverages, this “avoidance of negatives” continues to permeate American consumer behavior patterns.
While consumers may be turning to organics as a healthier option, there is a growing awareness among consumers regarding the commercialization of organics and concern over the increasing amounts of organic foods being imported from overseas, which is creating some consumer backlash. In fact, one out of five consumers feel organic foods/beverages are becoming too mainstream and they don’t trust them anymore. Even more telling, almost nine out of 10 consumers do not feel organic ingredients from other countries are equivalent to those from the United States.
Local vs. Organic
These concerns and distrust are causing consumers to be fearful of foods they consume. They want to look closer to home for better options and alternatives; for example, almost 40 percent of consumers indicate it is more important to buy local than to buy organic. Four out of five consumers indicate when considering food or beverage products, “locally grown” is an important attribute in their purchase decision. More than two-thirds of consumers have used “locally-sourced” foods/beverages in the past year, and one quarter of consumers have increased usage of locally sourced foods and beverages in the past year.
Locally grown foods infer quality, freshness, community sustainability and less environmental impact, along with dimensions of accountability, authenticity and transparency. With consumers becoming more aware of the energy and environmental impact of transporting foods long distances, local becomes a good environmentally-friendly option. Over a third of consumers are aware of the term carbon footprint, and over half state knowing a company is mindful of its impact on the environment and society makes them more likely to buy that company’s products. In fact, about a third of consumers started using natural foods and organic produce in order to support the local community farmers.
Over the last 50 years, the U.S. food supply has changed from one that was predominantly local and produced by countless small farmers to one that is based in globalism. As the food supply process becomes increasingly diverse, food sources and, in turn, food quality become more anonymous and, hence, more questionable. This building skepticism and mistrust portrayed by the consumer is changing consumer attitudes and behaviors, which the food industry cannot continue to overlook. Until there is a definite, far-reaching solution, consumers’ fears regarding food safety will continue to grow.
Steve French is managing partner at The Natural Marketing Institute (NMI), a strategic consulting, market research and business development firm specializing in the health, wellness, and sustainability marketplace. For more information on NMI’s services or proprietary research tools, contact French at [email protected] or visit www.NMIsolutions.com.
Looking for more new market research information from NMI? Join Greg Stephens, RD, on April 29 at SupplySide East for "Nutritional Trends in Supplements and Functional Foods." For more information or to register, click here.
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