COVID-19 Motivates Consumers to Consider the “Story” behind their Groceries

Written by Lauren Newman, Graduate Student  

Going to the grocery store, local butcher, or farmers’ market is an essential part of weekly activities for many people across the globe. When life as we knew it shut down almost two years ago, our regular activities came to a halt. Despite the numerous challenges we face as humans, we came up with solutions to keep our lives moving forward. During the beginning of the pandemic, people had to find different ways to buy groceries. As many of the commonly selected foods ran out of stock, many of us had to get creative and purchase food we may have never thought of purchasing before.  

More than ever before, people are increasingly more interested in the “story” behind the food that they are buying. Consumers begin to consider factors such as cost and convenience less, while taking into account food ethics more frequently. Attributes such as where the product is sourced, how it was raised, or whether it is considered an environmentally friendly option are becoming more widespread trends. In the United States, we are considered lucky to have many options for any given food item. You can often find more than two or three brands in many stores for a singular type of food. But along with the COVID-19 pandemic came more time to consider production factors, as well as spending habits. According to USDA Economic Research Service, in 2020, the U.S consumer spent an average of 8.6 percent of disposable income (income remaining after deduction of taxes and other mandatory charges) on food. (USDA ERS) Understandably, this number decreased partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With almost a tenth of disposable income spent on food each year, the importance of what attributes the products purchased have (natural, organic, sustainable) is becoming the forefront of the consumer’s mind.  

The National Science Foundation’s global survey data found that 73 percent of consumers want to change consumption habits to reduce environmental impact. Meat products and meat alternatives play a considerable role in consumers’ purchases. Consumer spending habits on meat are traditionally based on income, size of family, age of the consumer, and many other factors. Those factors influence the type of protein, quantity, and quality (USDA Select vs. USDA Choice) of the meat bought. With those choices and potential restraints in purchasing, the diversity of products we have in the United States is endless. Consumers have started to evaluate the production of the meat they are buying. More label claims are being developed to meet the growing desire to know more about the meat purchased. Some of the labels, for example, may include Organic, Natural, Humanely Raised, or have sustainability certifications, etc. It becomes a challenge for producers as the requirements change for each type of label and challenges in policy for the claims. It is an extraordinarily complex apparatus to navigate for everyone involved.  

A study in Belgium compared 359 people’s consumer preferences and willingness to pay for different label claims to see how people value them. They looked at free-range claims, organic labels, animal welfare, and carbon footprint labels on chicken breast. The results showed that over 75 percent of the consumers would pay a premium price for a product with Carbon footprint labels (Apostolidis, C., & McLeay, F. (2019). Most of the consumers in this study were in the upper two-thirds of income brackets. The demand is there for products to show more of the company’s impact on the environment, but demand is limited to the product’s price and who can afford it. Although the United States has not yet created a carbon footprint certification program, it will eventually begin as the desire for such will continue to rise. But as we start to introduce programs for products, it becomes a price concern for many people.  

The meat industry faces challenges, as the industry itself is primarily criticized for environmental concerns. Despite this public image, there have been significant commitments to reductions in the industry’s footprint as the matter of sustainability continues to rise. Social media plays a massive role in dictating both the public image of the meat industry, as well as consumer preferences. As mentioned previously, numerous factors influence consumer spending decisions, including animal welfare and sustainability labels, as more of the worldwide population begins to gain interest in business ethics on a global scale. There is a lot of work to be done in the industry to reach a level of sustainability that involves most meat products that are available to the consumer. As scientists continue to research a more sustainable future for the agricultural industry, individuals positively contribute by considering environmental ethics and integrating them into their everyday shopping choices. 

Sources: 

Apostolidis, C., & McLeay, F. (2019). To meat or not to meat? comparing empowered meat consumers’ and anti-consumers’ preferences for sustainability labels. Food Quality and Preference, 77, 109–122. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodqual.2019.04.008 

 Consumer expenditures report 2019 – Bureau of Labor Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved January 2, 2022, from https://www.bls.gov/opub/reports/consumer-expenditures/2019/pdf/home.pdf  

Five ways certifications connect with consumers. NSF International. (n.d.). Retrieved January 2, 2022, from https://www.nsf.org/knowledge-library/five-ways-certifications-connectconsumers  

Food prices and spending. USDA ERS – Food Prices and Spending. (n.d.). Retrieved January 2, 2022, from https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/ag-and-food-statistics-charting-theessentials/food-prices-and-spending 

Photo Credit: “Grocery Shopping” by Bruce A Stockwell is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/?ref=openverse&atype=rich