Discipline: consumers; Keywords: consumer, dairy product, organic, education, antibiotic.
Trends in consumer food choices are sometimes spontaneous, not always rational, but nevertheless evoke changes in the food industry. In supermarkets with abundant product choices and information overload on labels, consumers are confused and mostly do not have the background to understand what the information means. Moreover, because of the industrialization of the agri-food industry, consumers lost contact with farm life and are often unfamiliar with the processes behind food production. They therefore sometimes based their choices on popular even sensational media reports or analyses. One commonly reported concern of dairy consumers for example is the use of antibiotics in dairy animals. Products with an ‘organic’ or ‘antibiotic-free’ label are frequently perceived to be indicative of a superior or safer product. Such consumers are often not familiar with animal production practices and may not understand principles of antibiotic withdrawal times or know about the rigorous systems in place to prevent antibiotic residues from entering the food chain. The extent to which consumers are aware of antibiotic use and antibiotic residue avoidance practices on dairy farms is unknown, and it is unclear whether acquisition of such knowledge would affect purchasing behaviour and perceptions of dairy farming. It is also unclear which educational methods would be most effective in conveying such information. The objectives of the study by Dr L E Redding and co-workers were therefore (1) to assess consumers’ perceptions about the quality and production of dairy products in the US, and (2) to determine whether educational materials providing information on processes that limit the occurrence of antibiotic residues in milk can change these perceptions to affect purchasing behaviour. The results of their study were published in the Journal of Dairy Science Volume 104 of 2021, page 11474 to 11485. The title of the paper is: Educational interventions to address misconceptions about antibiotic residues in milk can alter consumer perceptions and may affect purchasing habits.
A total of 804 consumers was surveyed and they were assigned to one of three interventions: (1) a control arm (reading the content of the dairy page of the USDA’s myplate.gov website); (2) an educational brochure on the processes that prevent antibiotic residues in milk; and (3) a video on the same processes. The results showed that a majority (86.1%) of participants believe that the quality of dairy products is high, although many had concerns about the treatment of dairy animals and chemicals (pesticides, antibiotics, hormones) in dairy products. Compared with the control intervention, the brochure was associated with a significant decrease in the level of concern consumers had about chemicals in their milk and a significantly increased comfort in purchasing conventional dairy products. The video was associated with even stronger effects in both cases.
In summary therefore, it was found that survey respondents generally believe that the quality of dairy products is high in the US but they have concerns about the welfare of dairy animals and the potential for chemical contaminants in the milk. Educational interventions specifically addressing the issue of antimicrobial residues in milk resulted in a significant decrease in the level of concern consumers have about chemical residues as well as an increased level of comfort purchasing conventional dairy products compared with organic products. Educational material may be useful in reassuring consumers about the safety and quality of conventionally produced dairy products but the choice of the material used may be important. However, it is not known whether this type of educational material results in sustained alterations in perceptions and changes in actual purchasing habits.