Would you pay more to know where your meat came from? Are you
concerned about the conditions in which animals are kept while
they're being raised for slaughter? Do you care if your meat has
antibiotics in it or if your food contains genetically modified
If so, you may be one of many consumers
who are affecting the way food is manufactured and labeled.
At a time when a lot of attention is being paid to issues like
food safety, mad cow disease and genetically modified foods, many
companies and the government are responding to both consumers'
and activists' concerns about the food supply.
"We'd always say give the consumer as much information as you
can and he's free to ignore it and free to make whatever decision
he's going to make," says Art Jaeger, associate director of the
Consumer Federation of America, a Washington-based consumer advocacy
Changes in the Air
Recent moves include fast-food giant McDonald's calling on its
meat suppliers to phase out the use of growth-promoting antibiotics
in its meat, a decision that will likely change the use of antibiotics
in animals since the chain is one of the world's largest purchasers
In response to growing concerns about the way animals are raised,
KFC announced changes to its animal welfare policy at the end
of May that included guidelines for more humane slaughter and
handling of its suppliers' chickens.
And next year shoppers in supermarkets might even be able to
choose which country their meat comes from. A new country-of-origin
labeling regulation is expected to go into effect in September
of 2004. It will require a label showing the country of origin
on beef, lamb, pork, fish, produce and peanuts sold in the United
States. The meatpacking and retailing industries are vigorously
fighting the new regulations, which were part of the 2002 farm
Experts say these moves appeal in part to consumers' desire
for more information about where their food is coming from, but
also to activists' efforts to change some of the ways food
and especially meat is prepared.
"There's a growing trend that consumers in general are more
concerned about what happens beyond the four walls of our restaurant,"
says Bob Langert, senior director of social responsibility for
McDonald's in Oak Brook, Ill.
Concern About Consumables
Some recent polls highlight consumers' growing concerns.
One poll found that a third of Americans try to avoid buying
foods that have been genetically modified or treated with antibiotics
or hormones, and that resistance apparently would swell if such
products were required to be labeled.
Other research shows consumers' concerns change as different
issues come into the spotlight. Some 30 percent of shoppers surveyed
by the Food Marketing Institute in 2003 said that food produced
by biotechnology posed a "serious health risk," compared to just
15 percent in 1997. For the past two years, consumers' top health
concern has been bacteria.
Another recent study, from the Pew Research Center, also found
that 55 percent of Americans think genetically modified foods
are a "bad thing."
Genetically modified foods, which are biologically altered to
have characteristics such as faster growth or insect resistance,
are widely used in the United States and Canada. But their use
has been controversial in Europe, where consumers fear unknown
health effects and commonly deride them as "Frankenfood." The
European Union has banned the importing of any genetically modified
foods from the United States.
Groups like the Consumer Federation of America support labeling
genetically modified foods, which is currently not done in the
"For a variety of reasons, consumers may want to avoid [genetically
modified foods]," says the Consumer Federation's Jaeger. "Without
labeling they can't make an informed decision."
Paying the Price
Whether all of this information about what is in food and where
it comes from actually changes consumers' behavior is another
matter. Marketing experts say the number of people who would actually
change their shopping habits based on these factors is a small
niche, especially since raising organic meat and produce is more
expensive than other mass-produced foods.
"If you really want to change behavior you have to make the
preferred product less expensive than the food that's less preferred,"
says Harry Balzer, vice president and food industry analyst at
the NPD Group, a Port Washington, N.Y.-based market research firm.
The NPD Group recently found that despite the recent case of
mad cow disease in Canada, 56 percent of consumers surveyed said
they would eat the same amount of burgers as before.
But there is other evidence that consumers might pay more to
know where their food comes from. A recent study of country-of-origin
labeling out of Colorado State University, where a sample of 273
people bid for meat made in the United States or meat that was
not labeled, showed that 73 percent of the bidders were willing
to pay an 11 percent premium for steak made in the United States
and a 24 percent premium for U.S.-produced hamburger.
"There are groups that have the income to pay for their concerns,"
says Wendy Umberger, assistant professor of agricultural and resource
economics at Colorado State University, who led the study. "We
have the luxury now about being pickier about our food."
Although it may be a relatively small portion of the population
who is willing to pay more to know what's in their food, companies
are still responding.
Tyson Foods, which supplies meat and poultry to both McDonald's
and KFC, began phasing out the use of growth-promoting antibiotics
in the early '90s and started a small, organic line of poultry
three years ago.
"It's still what we would consider a niche market at this point,"
says Tyson spokesman Ed Nicholson. "Within certain markets it's
sold well and in others it doesn't because it's premium-priced.
Not every consumer is willing to pay that cost."
Whole Foods Markets, the country's largest retailer of natural
and organic foods, has been at the forefront of providing organic
food to the masses. The company has its own private label line,
called 365 Everyday Organic Value, which strives to provide organic
food at value prices. The stores also use country-of-origin labeling
on their produce.
"Consumers are asking more questions now," says Marget Wittenberg,
Whole Foods' vice president of governmental and public affairs.
"They really want to get connected to their food and are looking
for the answer."
Changes Bring Controversy
Of course, any shift that brings about potentially costly changes
in the way manufacturers do business is not without controversy.
The meat industry is opposed to country-of-origin labeling because
it says it will be costly to the industry and to the government,
with no real benefit to consumers. Industry publication Cattle
Buyers Weekly estimates the country-of-origin labeling will
cost the beef industry alone at least $1.4 billion to implement.
"We're afraid consumers are going to be upset that the same
package of hamburger they bought yesterday is going to cost more
because of the labeling," says Dan Murphy, vice president of public
affairs for the Arlington, Va.-based American Meat Institute.
The Consumer Federation of America, which supports country-of-origin
labeling, estimates that the change would cost a family an average
of 30 cents to 40 cents more a week, a cost the group does not
Others say that activist groups, not consumers, have been more
influential behind some of the changes in food production.
The use of growth-promoting antibiotics is one issue on which
groups are divided. Agriculture and animal farming groups say
the type of growth-promoting antibiotics that McDonald's has asked
its suppliers to stop using are Food and Drug Administration-approved
and safe. But other groups, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists,
say the use of such hormones leads to increasing antibiotic resistance
in humans, which makes diseases harder to treat.
And KFC's new poultry-treatment guidelines came under fire recently
from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which filed
suit against the chain, saying that it was misleading the public
about its treatment of animals. A PETA spokesman said the group
had evidence KFC was not complying with the new guidelines, while
KFC said PETA's suit was "one in a continuing series of publicity
stunts designed to mislead the public."
Whether the recent changes reflect a public relations effort
on the part of companies or simply the latest food fad remains
to be seen. But some are confident that shifts in the food supply,
however slow, will provide consumers with more choices in how
they choose to eat.
"It's really overwhelming how much of a change there's been,"
says PETA campaign coordinator Dan Shannon. "Twenty-three years
ago, the idea of free-range farming didn't exist. The idea of
vegetarianism as a popular, accepted thing didn't exist. As far
as the consumer side of things goes, it's an exploding market."
Reference Source 104