Free range, organic, hormone free - do we care?

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Consumers are increasingly confused and overwhelmed when it comes to choosing food – and it appears that food labels and standards aren't helping.

This will be at the crux of the Presidential Address by Professor Wendy Umberger, Executive Director of the Centre for Global Food & Resources at the University of Adelaide, when she explores issues around food choices at the 61st Annual Conference of the Australian Agricultural and Resource Economics Society (AARES), being held in Brisbane this week (7-10 February).

"Around one-third of consumers perceive products with marketing or label claims such as 'organic', 'antibiotic free', or 'no added hormones' to be healthier or safer choices, or better for the environment or the animals involved, but research shows there is often little to back up these claims or perceptions about them," Professor Umberger said.

"Then the same consumers who say they want food that is healthier, safer or better for the environment or the animals involved don't necessarily buy products labeled to capture their interest," she said.

"From our research, I believe consumers are growing more cynical about claims around foods as the results of research on 'organic' or 'hormone-free' come to light, and producers and industries don't know how to grow their markets as current claims lose their punch.

"Some countries have better advertising and labeling standards to bridge the gap to satisfy consumer concerns and guide them to food that really has the attributes they most want and will be willing to buy," she said. Professor Umberger used the Australian meat industry as an example.

"Australians are eating less meat, at least on a per capita basis, with consumption per capita having decreased 3.1% from 2009 to 2014 and the decrease has continued. The main reasons are price, spreading vegetarianism and people being concerned about health and the impact on environment. But labels on meat are confusing about these latter concerns.

"We surveyed Australian consumers about meat to look at how consumer choices are influenced by product attributes which might provide social, ethical and environmental benefits," Professor Umberger said.

"We found that across meat types, the willingness-to-pay for 'no added hormones' is significantly higher than any other claim, and that 'certified humane' as well as the 'free range' claims were valued relatively more than 'certified organic' and 'antibiotic free'.

"However, valuing meat in this way doesn't necessarily translate to purchasing food labeled or marketed to attract those consumers, and this is the case across income, education or gender groups.

"I think in our connected world there's growing consumer awareness that research is mixed on whether 'certified organic' products have a lower environmental impact compared to conventional methods. Further, we have chicken labels for 'no added hormones' when in Australia, chickens are neither fed nor administered hormones of any kind," she said.

"Clearly more work is needed to better understand how consumers are using these claims, and if they are improving the efficiency of our markets or actually making consumers more confused and worse off."


Contact Details

Professor Wendy Umberger
Executive Director, Centre for Global Food and Resources
Faculty of the Professions
The University of Adelaide
Business: +61 8 8313 7263
Mobile: 0405 990 465

Mr David Ellis
Deputy Director, Media and Corporate Relations
External Relations
The University of Adelaide
Business: +61 8 8313 5414
Mobile: +61 (0)421 612 762