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Consumer Motivation Evaluated


The August 2023 issue of Consumer Food Insights from the Center for Food Demand Analysis and Sustainability at the Purdue University, College of Agriculture provides a valuable analysis of factors motivating purchase of food products over time and by demographic category.


The results from the latest survey based on 1,200 participants from across the nation was conducted from August 21st through August 25th.  The survey incorporated a weighting method termed iterative proportional fitting to ensure balance among respondent groups including gender, age, race, region, income and SNAP participation.  The results were also classified according to political persuasion according to the broad categories of “liberal”, “moderate” or “conservative”. 


The survey considered food satisfaction, security, expenditures, beliefs and trust as the major response categories with appropriate data and interpretation relating to each of these factors.  With regard to consumer behavior, responses were graded on a scale of 1 (= never) to 5 (= always).  Among the moderate respondents, a score 3.2 was assigned to choosing generic foods over brands; 2.9 for local foods over non-local foods; 2.7 to cage-free eggs over conventional eggs; 2.6 for organic foods over conventional foods and 2.2 for plant-based proteins over animal proteins.  These relatively low scores incorporating the “rarely” to “sometimes” responses suggests indifference to the claimed health and other benefits claimed for organic and local food production.  There was no material difference between the “liberal” and “conservative” respondents and overall results were not different from the survey conducted in 2022. 


The section on animal welfare is regarded as important with regard to consumer perceptions and motivation to select foods.  Given concern over the 2023 SCOTUS decision upholding Proposition #12 and the evident implications for the pork industry, respondents were specifically asked to quantify their preferences, expressed as a percentage, over a range of seven attributes. Price was the highest-ranked factor with a score of 23.  This was followed by Taste at 22, Freshness at 18, Nutrition at 14, Appearance at 11, Animal Welfare at 7 and Sustainability at 6.  There was no material difference between the points assigned to Welfare that ranged from 7 to 10 among income demographics and Price that ranged from 18 to 27.  Naturally, Price scored higher among respondents with annual incomes below $75,000.  Within the income range of $75,000 to $100,000, Price outranked Welfare four-fold.  Understandably, those with a “liberal” leaning were slightly more willing to pay extra for pork produced either more sustainably or with a higher level of welfare. Even within this demographic, Price and Taste combined at 40 percent outranked the combination of Animal Welfare and Sustainability scoring 19 percent.  Among the “moderates”, 30 percent indicated that they would decrease their consumption of pork with a general price increase, almost equivalent to the 28 percent that indicated that they would reduce pork consumption based on a price increase attributed to Proposition #12. This suggests that price is the principal motivating factor and that welfare as a contributor to the purchase decision was subordinate to other attributes of pork.


Given that eggs, pork and chicken compete as protein sources, it is not unreasonable to accept that the results of the Consumer Insight Study on pork are also applicable to eggs.  Over the past two decades, animal rights activists through slanted surveys of dubious statistical relevance have made unjust demands for improved welfare.  In recent years, sustainability has entered the picture with common cause between environmental and welfare activists. These groups have a joint commitment to displacing intensive livestock production but offer no practical alternative to the current ample, reliable, quality and inexpensive supply of protein. In reality, consumers are largely discounting sustainability and welfare as motivators in their purchases of specific animal products. 


During 2020, retail chains and restaurants were coerced into making commitments to transition from sourcing eggs from caged hens to alternative systems including aviaries and barns by 2025.  At the present time, 5.8 percent (18.9 million hens) of the nominal national flock of 325 million hens produce under the USDA Certified Organic seal and 106 million representing 32.5 percent of the national flock are producing eggs in other than cages.  The rate of conversion has slowed with many large producers replacing cages only in those states that have mandated alternative housing systems.  Many chains have reneged on their commitments to source eggs only from cage-free systems or have extended their compliance dates. 


The findings of the Purdue Center for Food Demand Analysis and Sustainability are essentially similar to the results obtained by Caputo et al. in their study published in February 2023 entitled The Transition to Cage-Free Eggs.  The approach used in this study to evaluate consumer preferences, applied conjoint analysis to determine motivation to purchase eggs requiring consumers to make tradeoffs among price, welfare and sustainability. More than half of those surveyed were primarily concerned over shelf price per dozen.


Most of the surveys conducted by welfare groups are simplistic and designed to elicit a desired outcome.  They rise to the level of asking seven-year-olds whether they are in favor of ice cream.  Structured surveys using accepted principles of market research are able to quantify a range of attributes. Results suggest that consumers, even if aware of welfare and sustainability considerations, regard price and taste as important motivators to purchase protein foods of animal origin. Put another way, everyone is in favor of welfare and sustainability but only a small proportion of consumers are either able or willing to pay for these attributes.