Source: The Center for Food Integrity
What happens when you put food-conscious consumers center stage before a group of food producers?
Oklahoma pork producers had the opportunity to hear straight from the source in a recent consumer panel hosted by The Center for Food Integrity and quickly realized they don’t know as much as they thought about what today’s consumer thinks when it comes to food and how it’s produced.
“The one word that describes how most of the audience felt about this session is eye-opening,” says Nikki Snider, director of marketing and promotions with the Oklahoma Pork Council. “Pork producers are busy raising pigs, so they don’t have much time to think about how their products are perceived by those removed from farming.”
And a vast majority are “removed.” In fact, 98% of the population has no direct connection to agriculture, which is a reversal from a few decades ago when only 2% of the population was disconnected.
“This panel was a great way to expose them to consumers’ thoughts, myths about farming and how those myths impact buying decisions,” Snider says.
GMOs and More
Moderator Allyson Perry of CFI posed many questions to the panelists, who were carefully screened by CFI to represent a cross-section of consumers with a heightened interest about food. Among the topics: the impact of labels on buying decisions, trusted sources, GMOs, the value of purchasing GMO-free foods, what caused their fear of GMOs and how the food industry can alleviate their fears.
“The term GMO is really meaningless to consumers today,” says Snider. “They simply believe they’re ‘bad.’”
When asked for a definition of GMOs the panelists couldn’t answer, even though all of them indicated they purchase non-GMO foods.
Most of the panelists agreed that there were “a lot” of GMO foods available, with one responding “thousands” and another, “millions.” The panelists’ fears largely focused on long-term health issues.
Perry asked if their opinion about GMOs would change if, for example, they knew the technology could be used to introduce a naturally occurring gene from an arid plant to create corn that could grow using less water – not only resulting in the use of fewer natural resources but allowing corn to grow in drier climates where populations couldn’t grow their own food before.
One panelist replied: “I find it hard to believe that scientists would spend time and money to use the technology to help something grow faster and easier, more than for profit.”
It’s likely early dialogue about GMOs led to this perception, as much of the discussion from the food industry focused on farmer profitability and productivity, without explaining benefits to the environment and ability to raise food in difficult climates.
While insightful, CFI consumer panels can prove challenging for a room full of individuals passionate about food production and eager to educate.
“I instruct the audience to only ask questions of the panelists – not inform them,” says Perry. “I know how emotional it can be to listen to misperceptions and not respond.”
Pork producer Rob Richard was in the audience. “We in agriculture got behind in this new battle for the consumer by assuming ‘we’re farmers and we produce food, so people love us, right?’” he says. “The good news as I listened to the panel is that they’re open to our story. It’s not too late to turn the tide.”
“I think everyone in production agriculture should experience a panel like this,” says Jesse Donaldson. “We should all be spokespersons for agriculture and we can make a difference.”
The panels provide insights that often encourage organizations to change course, says Perry. “After one recent panel a member of the audience told me, ‘We’ve wasted the last four years addressing X when consumers aren’t really concerned about that.’”
Snider is using what she learned to shift her social media and digital advertising approach. “After the consumer panel, we better understand the urgency of reaching more consumers on topics that matter most to them,” she says. “Consumers want to hear from farmers. We just have to work harder to reach them and engage them where they are – not wait for them to come looking for us.”
To learn more about CFI consumer panels, contact Allyson Perry at firstname.lastname@example.org.