Consumer preferences  should concern everyone involved in the food business, and that includes beef producers, processors and marketers. But how does one separate the wheat from the chaff regarding consumer preferences  in a marketplace that is so noisy?
For instance, when chains like Chipotle and Chick-fil-A proclaim they’re moving toward antibiotic-free menus, how significant is that? And how integral are the “social values” – non-GMO, non-hormone, environmentally friendly, origin, traceability, etc. – in consumers’ food purchasing behavior?
Kansas State University (KSU) recently released the results of a study that focused on this latter question in regard to consumer decisions in purchases of ground beef, beef steak, chicken breast and milk. The KSU researchers wanted to find out how consumers rank the relative importance of various characteristics offered when it comes to purchasing animal products. The results pointed to the basic quality attributes of freshness, safety and taste, with the so-called social values lagging far behind.
Previous work at Oklahoma State University (OSU) had shed light on how consumers  ranked product traits in general. KSU’s Ted Schroeder, an Extension livestock economist, and other faculty and graduate students in KSU's Department of Agricultural Economics wanted to evaluate whether these findings varied when applied to specific animal food products, and how they factored into a consumer’s  decision to purchase animal-based products.
So they conducted an online survey of 1,950 U.S. respondents using best-worst scaling that applied the concept of food values to four specific meat and dairy products – ground beef, beef steak, chicken breast and milk. These specific livestock products were chosen because they provide a commonality that allows assessing differences in values for similar food sources; they represent a variety of animal products, and include a sampling of relatively high and low-cost products from the same species (ground beef and beef steak, for instance); and they are relatively common in the average American’s diet.
What the researchers found was that, similar to the OSU study, the overriding features in shopper selections of animal products remain strongly in the categories of taste, safety, freshness and price. Characteristics like hormone and antibiotic-free, animal welfare, traceability, etc., only drew single-digit responses.
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Safety was ranked either first or second in terms of importance for milk, ground beef, beef steak and chicken breast. Freshness was the other top value for livestock products. In contrast, the values of environmental impact, animal welfare, origin and convenience were less important for the livestock products, the researchers concluded.
"This study provides a summary of the importance of food values that can be applied to the animal food products presented. The dominant values of safety and freshness are apparent. In contrast, the values of environmental impact, animal welfare, origin/traceability and convenience are less important," Schroeder says.
This doesn’t mean these latter attributes aren’t important, Schroeder adds, or that making food products more appealing relative to these values is inadvisable. Rather, it's important to acknowledge that these attributes aren't of primary importance to most consumers. The bottom line is that consumers regard a safe, high-quality eating experience as paramount. That would appear to be an important finding for livestock producers and animal protein marketers to bear in mind as they go about their business.
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