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Consumers seek out ‘natural’, ‘locally grown’ on product labels: survey

By Maggie Hennessy , 25-Jun-2014
Last updated the 25-Jun-2014 at 02:11 GMT

Photo from Consumer Reports
Photo from Consumer Reports

When shopping for food, two-thirds of US consumers look for “locally grown” on labels, while 59% check to see if the products they’re buying are natural, according to a survey from Consumer Reports National Research Center. 

While a majority of people think that the “natural” label actually carries specific benefits, an even greater percentage of consumers think it should.

More than eight out of 10 said they believe that packaged foods carrying the “natural” label should come from food that contains ingredients grown without pesticides (86%), do not include artificial ingredients (87%), and do not contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) (85%), according to the Opinion Research Corp. survey of 1,004 adult US residents conducted in April.

The FDA has not developed a formal definition for use of the term “natural” or its derivatives, though the agency has not objected to the use of the term if “nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food”. The USDA, which regulates meat and poultry, says that a product is “natural” if it contains “no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed,” meaning the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter it.  

Consumers willing to pay more for some environmental, social and safety claims

Other keywords consumers look for on food labels? “No artificial growth hormones” (50%), “pesticide free” (49%), “organic” (49%), “no artificial ingredients” (48%), “non-GMO” (40%), “raised without antibiotics” (39%), “humane” (35%), and “fair trade”(31%).

Indeed, the poll showed that a range of environmental, safety, and social concerns are important to most US consumers when purchasing food, including supporting local farmers (92%), protecting the environment from chemicals (89%), reducing exposure to pesticides (87%), fair conditions for workers (86%), good living conditions for animals (80%), and reducing antibiotic use in food (78%).

The results further demonstrated that consumers are willing to pay a premium for certain label claims. For example, about 80% said they will pay more for fruits and vegetables produced by workers under fair wage and working conditions; and about one-third said they’d even pay 50 cents or more per pound.

Misconceptions surround animal welfare, organic meanings

Still, consumers have some misconceptions when it comes to what certain labels actually denote, according to the poll.

The majority think the humanely raised claim on eggs, dairy and meat should mean that the farm was inspected to verify this claim (92%), the animals had adequate living space (90%), the animals were slaughtered humanely (88%), and the animals went outdoors (79%). But currently the “humanely raised” label does not require that the farm was inspected, and there are no standards for ensuring animals had adequate living space, were able to go outdoors, or were slaughtered humanely.

And while 65% of consumers correctly think the “raised without antibiotics” means that no antibiotics were used, 31% mistakenly think this label means no other drugs were used in addition to antibiotics. In addition, if an animal was routinely given antibiotics, the vast majority of consumers (83%) demand that the government require that this meat be labeled as “raised with antibiotics”.

Nine out of 10 consumers demand that the “organic” label on packaged or processed foods should mean no toxic pesticides were used (91%), no artificial materials were used during processing (91%), no artificial ingredients were used (89%), and no GMOs were used (88%). As the “organic” label is verified and backed by comprehensive federal standards that prohibit GMOs and nearly all toxic pesticides, artificial processing aids and ingredients, the label already largely meets consumer expectations.

GMO labeling remains a topic of concern for many US consumers—with nine in 10 saying that before genetically engineered (GE) food is sold, it should be labeled accordingly (92%) and meet long-term safety standards set by the government (92%). And nearly three-quarters (72%) of consumers say that it is crucial for them to avoid GE ingredients altogether when purchasing food.

Over the next several months, Consumer Reports will partner with TakePart in an ongoing series on its site called “Know your food, know your labels” , which will examine a range of food labeling concerns, ranging from well-defined terms like “organic” to newer terms like “humane” or “fair trade”—and whether such terms should carry a premium price tag.

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