By NANCY LYBARGER
JASPER, Ind. — Consumers are concerned how animal products reach their table. They want livestock treated humanely from birth to slaughter, and they place a priority on food safety.
They just aren’t knowledgeable about how any of that happens – nor do they care much, according to research conducted for a master’s thesis by a Purdue University agricultural economics student.
Nicole Olynk Widmar and Melissa McKendree presented McKendree’s findings last week to the Southern Indiana Pork Conference. The thesis aimed to determine consumers’ perceptions and behaviors, and there were 798 participants in the related 2012 survey.
Questions predominantly were about pork, but other protein products were included for comparison. The data are not public at this point, Widmar said; however, she shared some of the findings:
•The average age of the participant was 47
•Average household of two adults and one-half child
•Average income of $49,000
•48 percent male
•The sample was a bit better educated than the national average, but most other aspects were in line
•Average weekly food expense was $132.77 (slightly more than the national average)
Ninety percent of the participants said they purchased ham and lunchmeat. Younger, larger households bought the most. The top two lunchmeats listed were turkey and ham. Only 131 said they had purchased no ham; 440 said they had ham once or twice a month.
McKendree tried to determine if smoked ham was used mostly for regular meals or if it was primarily holiday fare. If people use a product mostly for holiday meals, they are more willing to pay a premium for the product, Widmar explained. Therefore, retailers are looking at two different products.
Also surveyed were participants’ perceptions of production. They were asked if they had reduced animal protein consumption because of animal welfare concerns. While 14 percent indicated a reduction in consumption, there was a disconnect in perceptions, Widmar said.
“Consumers don’t associate slaughter with the dairy industry. If you ask about pork products, consumers know a pig is going to die,” she said, adding they seem more emotionally attached to a dairy cow.
Actions that are similar for both livestock and pets are most acceptable, she noted. Neutering, ear notching, crating and tail docking were not perceived as cruelty, because those are similar practices in pets. Most of those surveyed voiced neutral opinions about these actions.
Most of the concerns were about slaughter and processing facilities, followed by farm practices, then transportation and hauling. There was a level of agreement that practices reduce the welfare of pigs, but all the concerns were in the neutral area.
Most of those surveyed had heard of gestation crates through the media, so they ranked those highest in concerns about animal welfare. They also voiced concerns about group pens, but didn’t know much about either aspect of production, Widmar said. To emphasize her point, she said more people were concerned about animal welfare in bacon production than in cold cuts.
“They didn’t get it was the same animal,” she explained.
Ground beef was a source of concern, as were eggs, but turkey posted the highest ranking for animal welfare concerns. It is important to note, she said, that consumers tend to tell surveyors what they think the surveyor wants them to say.
Of those who don’t eat pork, 6 percent were opposed for religious reasons, while 7 percent simply chose not to eat it. Of those not eating pork, only 6 percent were opposed to anyone else consuming it.
“That means they don’t care if you produce it or sell it. They may at some point change their minds about eating pork,” Widmar said.
Keeping customers is less expensive than recruiting new ones, so she suggested producers work with existing consumers. “If they tell you they want it produced differently, you need to find out what they expect and communicate with them. Tell them if what they expect is possible,” she said.
McKendree’s research indicates some consumers are willing to pay more for what they perceive as humanely produced meat – but they want outside verification of the process. Some consumers are willing to pay about $1 more per pound for process-verified products, she said.
“We need a segment of the industry that is willing to change methods to satisfy that small number of consumers who are willing to pay the premium for the process,” she said.