Demand it and they will make it

SALEM, Ohio – It’s a consumer’s world. What they demand, they get. And it’s up to producers to make it happen.

The government imposes food safety guidelines, but consumers take those requirements to the next level. Their perceptions, regardless of whether they’re correct or clouded by misinformation, shape the food industry.

Opening eyes. People weren’t always so aware of what was on their plates and in their refrigerators. But with new technology, they’re becoming more aware of the production process, says Brian Roe, an Ohio State agricultural economist.

And they’re getting concerned.

Technology has burned and benefited consumers in the past, making them more interested in where their food is`coming from and how it’s being produced, Roe said. As a result, people are demanding organic products, animal welfare guidelines and genetically modified-free food.

Europe vs. U.S. Although U.S. consumers have food fears, the Europeans’ level of trepidation far overshadows the American public’s concerns.

Europe’s food crises are more recent and still fresh in the minds of many Europeans, said OSU agricultural economist Ian Sheldon.

Two years ago, during an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, British television showed animals burning every night on the news.

These images made a huge impact on the public, Sheldon said. Not only were people switching to vegetarian diets in record numbers, but consumers wanted more control over their food, knowing where it came from and how it was processed.

Although Sheldon said Europe’s food scares may have a trickle-down effect on U.S. food patterns, Americans haven’t had a recent crisis to fuel their fears.

Big push. Instead it’s often small groups who spark pockets of concern among U.S. consumers.

To this, Roe looks at PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), a highly outspoken animal welfare group.

Its demands on fast-food giants like McDonald’s set the bar.

Because the business doesn’t want protesters picketing outside the front door or marring its image, it relents and also calls for better animal welfare practices.

Other restaurants follow and these practices become “mandatory.”

At the brink. Although groups like PETA are shaping food perceptions and practices, many Americans are still forming opinions, Roe said.

For example, while most Europeans have their minds made up about the safety of genetically modified food, Roe said Americans are at a cusp.

Although both countries have groups “dead set against GMOs, the United States has many more people who haven’t made up their minds,” Roe said.

Their opinions can still be shaped, he said, and it’s an opportunity for each side to make its case about the product’s viability.

It’s also a chance for diversification, Roe said. GM-free fields, bST-free cows, organic agriculture.

“Rather than treat it as a threat, treat it as an opportunity,” he said.

(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at

Demand shapes supply

SALEM, Ohio – Look at the cattle sector if you want a good example of a consumer-driven market, says Brian Roe, an Ohio State agricultural economist.

Beef enjoyed increasing popularity in the ’70s, but after an explosion of studies claiming red meat was unhealthy, consumers set their forks down.

Public’s response? Demand steadily plummeted through the late 1990s. Producers struggled to find a way to survive – a way to market their product to a health-wary society.

The result? Production methods changed and lean meat showed up in stores, satisfying consumers and luring them back to beef.

Now, more recent research disputes the earlier findings that damaged red meat’s image.

What does it all mean? Farmers can plant all the fields they find and raise al, the livestock their barns will hold, but what people actually eat is up to them.

Whether health and safety claims are true is irrelevant. Just believing them is enough to change consumers’ eating habits.

– Kristy Hebert


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