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Freshness beats footprints when buying meat and dairy: study

Freshness, quality and animal welfare are the most important attributes when people buy livestock products. Environmental sustainability, such as food miles, carbon footprints and organic production, are the least important.

The findings come from an online survey of 3,192 people conducted in five European countries: Czechia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the UK.

The research, led by Swiss agricultural research centre Agroscope and published in the journal Food Quality and Preference, identified the attributes that are most important for consumers when buying meat or dairy products (which generally come with high greenhouse gas and environmental impacts).

Participants were asked to rate the importance of different factors when shopping for meat and dairy products on a scale from 1 (not at all important) to 5 (extremely important). 

For meat purchases, freshness, quality/taste and animal welfare were the top three attributes people look for.  Then came nutrition, price and healthy eating. Price featured higher in the UK and Czechia than all other countries.

Provenance was ranked (tenth) for UK consumers, followed by the carbon footprint of the product (eleventh), food miles (thirteenth) and organic (eighteenth). Packaging was the top-ranked environmental attribute (eighth). Whether the animal was reared outdoors/free-range or was pasture-fed ranked ninth and twelfth respectively.

Dairy choices followed a similar pattern, with freshness, quality/taste and nutrition the top three attributes. Then came animal welfare and price. Organic was the least important attribute (eighteenth). Whether the cows are pasture-fed (twelfth) and that the carbon footprints of the products are available (thirteenth) were also less important for consumers in the UK.

The rankings were similar across all five countries with environmental attributes among those considered to be less important. The findings suggest that “food choice decisions are unlikely to be made based on the environmental sustainability of a food product’s production alone”, the experts noted.

Consumers across all five countries indicated that they perceived sustainability labels for meat and dairy products as helpful (average scores between 3.7 and 4.1, where 1 = unhelpful and 5 = very helpful). 

However, labels alone are not enough to change behaviour, especially for consumers who have low or no behavioural intention to buy sustainable meat or dairy products, the authors of the paper wrote. “Producers can use these findings to market particularly sustainable products in a more targeted way and make them more attractive to consumers,” they added. 

The research, part of the SUPER-G EU Horizon 2020 programme (Developing sustainable permanent grassland systems and policies), also showed that although organic production is considered important, it was perceived to be of less importance than other attributes across all five countries. One possible reason for this is that organic production is associated with a number of different product attributes, such as ‘environmentally friendly’, healthy, expensive, or supportive of farmers, the researchers said. 

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