US consumers don’t trust ‘organic’ label and Australians concerned by pricing

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 24th April 2013

More than half of US consumers agree that labelling food or other products organic is just an excuse for companies to charge more, according to research from US market research organisation Harris Interactive.

A March 2013 ‘Harris Poll’, conducted by the market research organisation, found that more Americans are concerned about the current state and future of the environment in 2013 than in 2012 (38 per cent in 2013, compared with 31 per cent in 2012). But this did not necessarily translate into willingness to buy ‘green’ or ‘organic’ items.

Men are particularly skeptical about the ‘organic’ label, with 63 per cent of male American consumers agreeing that the labelling of food or other products as organic is just an excuse to charge more, compared with 54 per cent of women.

“What surprised us most was that while Americans are showing more concern for the environment, they aren’t necessarily willing to pay more to do anything about it,” said Mike de Vere, President of the Harris Poll. “While Americans feel better about the economy, many are wary of the ‘greenwashing’ concept that gives companies a chance to cash in on consumers who want to help the planet but are confused by all the eco-friendly jargon,” he said.

Eight in ten Americans said they will seek out ‘green’ products. About half of respondents said they were not willing to pay extra for such products, while 33 per cent said they sought out ‘green’ products only if the cost was the same.  One in ten respondents said they sought out ‘green’ products only if it meant they saved a little money, and 8 per cent said only if it saved them a lot of money. Two in ten respondents said they did not seek out ‘green’ products, no matter if there were any savings.

While recent research shows that organic produce and meat typically do not have a greater nutritional content than conventional varieties, the poll showed that 55 per cent of Americans believe that organic foods are healthier than non-organic. Additionally, 41 per cent of American consumers said that organic food tastes better and/or fresher than non-organic.

More than half of respondents said they worried about the freshness of their produce because of the distance it travelled to get to the grocery store, while 23 per cent of Americans said they did not often buy organic food because they believe the products ‘go bad’ more quickly.  Nearly 80 per cent of Americans said they did not feel guilty if they did not buy organic food.

Australian Food News reported in December 2012 that research from Cornell University in New York had also found that US consumers were skeptical about ‘organic’ labels.

Australian perspective

Meanwhile, in Australia consumers are also sometimes concerned about the price tag that often comes with the ‘organic’ label. According to data collected by Australian market insights organisation Mobium Group, 80 per cent of consumers in Australia in 2012 said that price/value was still a major barrier to them buying organic food. Nearly half said being able to trust that the product was organic was a major barrier to purchase.

According to the research, 65 per cent of adult Australians said they had bought at least one organic product in 2012, with food products making up the biggest share of organic products purchased. Fresh produce is the most popular organic sector, with 60 per cent of Australian households saying they had bought at least one organic fruit or vegetable in 2012.

Household staples were the next most popular, with 45 per cent of households saying they bought at least one organic cooking ingredient in 2012, and 39 per cent of households saying they bought at least one organic canned good in 2012.

Nearly 40 per cent of households said they bought organic bread in 2012, 35 per cent said they bought organic red meat, and 34 per cent said they bought organic dairy items.

Andrew Monk, Chairman of organic certifying body Australian Organic, told Australian Food News that some of the issues around trust were showing some signs of being solved by the industry. The Mobius Group research showed that 53 per cent of respondents in 2012 knew that certification marks or logos used on labels guaranteed that a product was organic, up from 42 per cent in 2010.

The Australian Organic ‘bud logo’ was the most recognised organic certification symbol (31 per cent in 2012, up from 23 per cent in 2010), followed by the NASAA Certified Organic logo (19 per cent in 2012, up from 15 per cent in 2010), and the US certification body USDA’s logo (7 per cent in 2012 – the first time data had been collected for this logo).

US and Australian organic industries regulated differently

Mr Monk told Australian Food News that regulation of ‘organic’ is a different process in Australia to what it is in the US. According to Mr Monk, the term ‘organic’ is protected by law in the US, which he said had led to some “bizarre” outcomes from legislative action, which he said might contribute to the lack of trust US consumers have in the ‘organic’ label.

“I think it’s a case of legislative overreach, and there’s a lack of ownership [of the term],” Mr Monk told Australian Food News.

By contrast, Australia’s organic industry is self-regulated, and reinforced by strong consumer-protection laws.

“But it’s a delicate web that requires market support for it to function – and luckily all the big retailers are doing that,” Mr Monk said.

“The fact that you have that triangle of support, that web of support, I think is key to the long-term health of the future. And I think that is a far better model than a legislative model that then kind of ends up dumbing everything down and possibly ultimately losing the baby out with the bath water,” Mr Monk said.