WHILE meat consumers are paying attention to animal welfare, it’s not driving their purchase decisions and the majority are not willing to pay for guarantees.
Further, many consumers take animal welfare attributes in meat to mean improved safety, healthiness and taste.
And people don’t want to know the intricate details of animal welfare on farms, they just want to be confident producers are doing the right thing.
These fascinating findings from some of the most comprehensive and nationally-representative data on meat buying behaviour in Australia throws plenty of industry thinking on its head - most notably the continual cry for more consumer education.
The research, from the Centre for Global Food and Resources at the University of Adelaide, was soaked up by delegates at the 2018 Australian Society of Animal Production conference in Wagga Wagga last week.
The centre’s executive director, leading behavioural economist Professor Wendy Umberger, said one of the key reasons animal welfare attributes were not driving meat purchase behaviour was belief the industry was doing the right thing.
However, she warned, that reputation could be lost very quickly.
No one knows better than the livestock producer how quickly negative media can turn the tide of public opinion.
Against a backdrop of declining meat consumption coupled with vegetarianism growth to the tune of 15 per cent per annum in Australia, the need to understand what drives consumers and to communicate messages in the right way has never been greater for meat industries, according to Prof Umberger.
“What we are really hearing loudly is cynicism,” she said.
“Consumers are confused. They are inundated with claims and labels and don’t know why they should pay more for certain attributes.
“If I were someone investing in non-traditional production systems I would be demanding standards, so there is consistency and value.”
While Australia might export three-quarters of its beef, it still needed to pay attention to the domestic market “because of things like what Trump is doing in the United States at the moment”, Prof Umberger said.
“If all of a sudden we had blockages to export markets, we’d be looking heavily to the domestic market,” she said.
“But even with competing in international markets, we want to have best practice and be in a position to communicate that well.”
Researchers call food traits linked with livestock production and processes ‘credence attributes’ - the likes of organic, free range, grass-fed and certified humane.
Why would an economist study demand for credence attributes?
“We’re concerned about something called market failure,” Prof Umberger explained.
“Production and process attributes in food can’t be verified by the consumer through visual inspection or experience. There is opportunity for consumers to be misled.”
Indeed, the research clearly shows credence attributes are typically used as cues for things other than what they signal in reality.
Unveiled was a high agreeance with the statement “welfare of livestock used to produce meat is as good as can be expected.”
Beef topped the count here and chicken brought in the lowest agreement.
People also agreed strongly they care about farm animal welfare but said they don’t feel sufficiently informed on the issue yet don’t necessarily want to know more.
“The idea we need to educate people is not right. They just want to know you’re doing the right thing,” Prof Umberger said.
Another insight was that those consumers who value credence attributes often did so because they believed it would deliver a personal benefit, typically nutritional value and taste.
Only 25pc said they agreed that “to improve farm animal welfare we must be willing to pay a higher price for meat.”
“Interestingly, positive perceptions are often higher for free range than organic,” Prof Umberger said.
“Yet there is a big production cost difference between the two and there is a standard in Australia for organic but not free range.”
Segmentation analysis undertaken by the researchers identified three main groups of consumers.
The first was made up of people really motivated about credence attributes. They tend to be the most informed about what these traits mean and mostly likely to put their money where their mouth is. But they are only 24pc of meat buyers and not necessarily the highest income earners.
The second group has people for whom animal welfare does drive decisions but are also sensitive to price.
These are the ones activists are really able to influence, Prof Umberger said.
And the third group, considered the average meat consumer, falls into the “price-sensitive skeptic” label.
Price completely drives purchase decisions here and they account for 44pc of meat customers.