Writing in Food Quality and Preference, researchers note that it is a well understood trend that consumers want to know more about the food they eat. These demands, they suggest, have seen the food industry embrace the provision of information about products as an instrument to differentiate products, segment consumer demand, and realise prices of higher margin.
But as the number of food labels continues to expand, understanding how consumers process label information and use it in purchase decisions has become more and more complex, warned the research team.
The new study aimed to understand how two labels with distinct but potentially complementary characteristics—local and organic—interact.
Led by Marco Costanigro from Colorado State University, USA, the researchers conducted a three-step investigation of consumer attitudes to local, organic and organic–local apples to investigate:
- whether local and organic labels overlap and substitute or complement each other;
- if willingness to pay (WTP) for local and organic reduce when consumers become aware of the 'weak scientific evidence' documenting better environmental and nutritional outcomes
- whether intrinsic attributes such as taste and appearance influence valuation of labels (which certify extrinsic attributes) and if this alters consumer choice
The team found that local and organic are 'partial substitutes' in that they both offer an alternative to the conventional food system - noting that a lack of trust in the effectiveness of food regulatory agencies is a key trigger of valuation for local and organic.
However, scientific information regarding tradeoffs between labels was either disregarded or interpreted selectively, the team said.
"Some are not willing to trade local/organic for conventional apples even when they rated the latter as better tasting," Costanigro and his colleagues reported.
"The common thread among the results of this study is that a subpopulation of consumers displays polarised preferences in favour of local and organic or against conventional apples," they explained - noting that that while polarisation per se 'is not problematic', the behaviour of consumers observed in the study "does raise the question of why some people will not compare apples to apples."
Across all of their tests, the team consistently found that estimates for the valuation of local and organic labels are sub-additive when both attributes are present.
"Our interpretation is that, even though the labels certify dissimilar product attributes, consumers associate them with somewhat similar outcomes," explained the authors.
The team also found that consumers who strongly associate local and organic labels to desirable environmental and food safety outcomes also tend to share a sense of distrust for the government agencies responsible for monitoring food safety and pesticide levels in the broader food system.
"This particular combination of beliefs is also the most important predictor of WTP for both labels when no sensory/experience information is available," said the team.
However they noted that those who believed that organic and local produce would have better environmental outcomes, but did not distrust 'conventional' food or agriculture, were not williing to pay more for such products.
"It is therefore possible that a stigma against the conventional food supply chain induces a WTP premium for any label providing an alternative to conventional produce, be it real or perceived," said Costanigro and his team.
"This 'alternative' connotation may be one of the shared characteristics accountable for the substitutability of local and organic products," they added.