Communicating the complexity of livestock farming

Farmers do have consumers’ trust on their side

The dairy industry should find simple ways to convey the complex messages of how it deals with animal welfare, food safety and environmental stewardship.

If it doesn’t, it runs the risk that consumers will get their information from other sources, including advocacy organizations, which can sometimes question farmer credibility.

Why it matters: With international trade agreements permitting more foreign access to Canada’s dairy industry, it is more important than ever that Canadian consumers understand the benefits of supporting domestic supply.

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During the recent University of Guelph Dairy Research and Innovation Day, those were key points raised by academics studying consumer perception and behaviour.

Mike von Massow, professor of Food Agriculture and Resource Economics and a member of the steering committee for the university’s Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare, spoke about successive surveys tracking consumer understanding of common agricultural practices.

Year over year, he said, it’s obvious that complexities are difficult to convey through the food value chain. He used examples that included the significant number of consumers who checked off a multiple-choice option that broiler chickens are slaughtered at four years old, and the small proportion who understand that a cow must give birth before it produces milk.

“If people don’t know that, then how are we going to have a nuanced conversation about how we’re looking at gene editing so we can have cows without horns?” he asked.

He said consumers are hungry to know more. When the survey asked if they would like more information, Von Massow reported they replied strongly “yes.” Knowing more, the consumers indicated, would affect their choice of which products to buy.

This assertion was supported by Amanda Norris, a University of Guelph student in Von Massow’s department.

“Consumers are open to labelling that indicates country of origin of their food products but price is still a strong motivating factor for many,” said Norris, who worked with Professor John Cranfield to conduct a survey of 1,600 Ontario residents in the fall of 2017 as part of her research.

In keeping with previous work and because these products have the potential to include some or all imported dairy ingredients, Norris’s survey specified four products: cheddar cheese, Gouda cheese, yogurt, and ice cream. Respondents were offered several choices that might motivate their purchases including price, level of traceability, country of origin, a brand, and a method of production (organic/conventional). A “no choice” option was also included.

“Prior to this survey, I heard many people talk specifically about the dairy industry and looking for the Little Blue Cow label when purchasing dairy products,” Norris told Farmtario. “This is a well-known and respected country-of-origin label that quickly informs consumers about not only country of origin but quality and safety as well.”

She suggested the importance of the logo, which is voluntary and not used by all processors using all-Canadian dairy ingredients, was reinforced by her study, with consumers showing a preference “strongly in favour of production in Canada.”

Price is also important, she noted, but “consumers may be willing to pay a premium for dairy products from domestic sources.”

Von Massow, though, warned against going too far when trying to convey messages on food packaging. “We put way too much information on food labels today, and people are processing almost none of it,” he said. Those enforcing labelling standards need to make themselves aware of what formats work best for reaching the target audience.

Based on some of her more recent work, Norris agreed.

“A study that I completed in the summer of 2018 regarding genetically modified (GM) and genetically engineered (GE) labels on cereal boxes showed that very little attention was paid to this particular label.” Other factors like price and brand name had greater influence, she said.

“This is just one example but it showcases the importance of providing consumers with very concise information, many times even before they see the product in the store, and not overwhelming them with too many labels.”

Von Massow stressed that farm organization involvement in the creation of enhanced labelling may, in many cases, be necessary to ensure accurate messaging. He began his talk by arguing farmers don’t need to earn trust; Canadians, by and large, trust in the quality of Canadian food. But “the bigger risk (to farmers’ credibility) is when there’s a surprise” such as a clandestinely filmed animal welfare video or an outbreak of food-borne illness.

“Someone is going to talk to (consumers). And if it’s not us, who is it going to be?”

About the author

Contributor

Stew Slater operates a small dairy farm on 150 acres near St. Marys, Ont., and has been writing about rural and agricultural issues since 1999.

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