Have you ever wondered what consumers think about when they go the grocery store?
The answer is probably “yes,” and research projects conducted by the Center for Food Integrity and the Food Marketing Institute give us a pretty good idea about this.
But have you specifically asked consumers? Have you ever walked up to the person standing next to you in the dairy aisle and asked what he or she thought about before picking up that gallon of milk? What about a random stranger you run across in town? Have you ever asked your friends and family what they think about dairy farming? It might sound a bit intimidating to do, but a group of dairy leaders were recently charged to do just this.
As a homework assignment, members of this year’s Young Dairy Leaders Institute class were asked to interview a non-farm consumer to better understand consumer buying habits and beliefs. For this project, a non-farm consumer was defined as a buyer who is not familiar with dairy farming. This could be a friend of a friend or a stranger in the grocery store. The overall goal of the assignment was to better understand the perspective of the consumer, even if the class member didn’t agree with that perspective.
Class members were given these five questions to ask.
- How do you make purchasing decisions about the food you buy?
- Can you tell me a little more about how the dairy products you purchase are produced?
- Do you feel farmers protect your food from pesticides, antibiotics and hormones? Why or why not?
- How do you believe animals in food production are treated?
- Would you be as satisfied with your food supply and safety if it were to come from another country at the same or lower price?
I thought it would be worthwhile to share some of the responses.
One consumer says she purchases her food primarily based on price, but would prefer to buy organic products, especially when it comes to produce. Her perception was that there are fewer pesticides, especially in organic produce, and believed that the reason organics were more expensive is because those producers have to “work harder” to create those products.
Another person feels that farmers do their best to protect the food supply from unnecessary use of pesticides, antibiotics and hormones, but still would prefer less usage all around. This consumer also acknowledged that farms are doing the best they can with the resources they have to treat their animals and the environment well. However, she admitted that she isn’t totally clear of how everything in food production — and specifically dairy production — is run on a day‐to‐day basis.
Another consumer said that he tends to avoid the “middle” of most grocery stores where a lot of the processed foods are. Not always, but often. He shared that he tends to buy foods that have fewer ingredients and ingredients he recognizes. In an ideal world, he said he would avoid preservatives, colorings, artificial flavors, GMO’s, antibiotics, pesticides, high‐fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, conditioners, and other additives like MSG. Currently, he buys more processed foods than he would like, stating that convenience is a big factor because he’s busy. He still purchases foods he feels are healthier, less expensive (in bulk at health food stores, without excess packaging), and because he feels they are more in line with his values.
One consumer shared that unless something is labeled “certified organic and free of pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones,” she assume these items are ALL in her dairy products. She doesn’t necessarily distrust farmers; she just thinks that these things seem to be industry standards.
These are just a few of the answers in what appeared to be very interesting and eye-opening interviews. One thing is clear from the responses: we have our work cut out for us in communicating to consumers who we are, what we do, and that we care deeply about our animals, land, environment and the consumer.
While it may be easy to be overwhelmed by the negativity of some of the responses, we should look at it as an opportunity. How would consumers know what we do for a living and that we do care? We know the truth because we live it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Consider how much you know about other people’s jobs and what they do.
One of the YDLI class members shared that the learning opportunities that came from interviewing non-farm consumers wasn’t just one-sided. She said that the people she talked with have been extremely willing and open to letting her tell her dairy farm’s story and to share the truth about the dairy industry.
I think it’s time we all took a stab at finding out what consumers are thinking about. At the end of the day, the more we learn about consumers, the more they learn about us.