A new survey on US consumers’ choices in human foods could have implications for the petfood industry, particularly in how these consumers are focusing on “healthfulness,” the sources they trust for nutrition information, their level of confidence in food safety and the information they seek on product labels. Some of the findings are good news, some not so great.
The International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation’s 2014 Food and Health Survey, fielded in March and April, included 1,005 Americans aged 18 to 80. It found that 71% of the respondents cited healthfulness as a driver in their food and beverage choices, up from 61% in 2013. Further, healthfulness has almost caught up to a price (at 73%) as a factor in food choices. Taste, though, trumps all, cited by 90% of respondents. IFIC has conducted the survey annually since 2006.
A quibble: “Healthfulness” is one of those terms that, on the surface, seems perfectly understandable but in reality could be interpreted in multiple ways. Neither the IFIC report on the survey nor the executive summary defines the term. Nor was it really defined for survey respondents; judging by the summary, it appears to simply have been one of the answer choices to this question: “How much of an impact do the following have on your decision to buy foods and beverages?” Besides taste and price, other choices were convenience (which received a 51% response) and sustainability (38%).
I’ll assume that respondents made a very literal interpretation – full of health – and that this survey finding means US consumers are increasingly making the connection between nutrition and health. By extension, since pet-owning consumers treat their pets as family members, they are likely making the same connection between petfoods and pet health.
According to IFIC, consumers aged 18-34 recorded the biggest leap in focusing on healthfulness from 2013 to 2014, 55% to 66%. Men overall also showed a significant increase, from 56% in 2013 to 65% this year. The other notable subgroup in the survey were respondents who are not college graduates, with 67% reporting healthfulness as a purchasing decision driver, up from 61% in 2013.
Other survey findings of note to petfood:
- Respondents cited health professionals as the most trusted source for nutrition information – though at only 50%, this figure seems to somewhat diminish the connection between nutrition and health. This could be because generally, the medical profession has only started stressing that connection in the past 10 years or so, similar to a lagging foundation of nutrition in the veterinary profession, though the interest in companion animal nutrition among vets is improving.
- 66% of respondents are at least “somewhat confident” in the safety of the US food supply, while 30% expressed little to no confidence. Those data have swung to the negative since just 2012, when 78% of US consumers said they were somewhat confident and only 18% were not too confident or not at all confident. No doubt numerous product recalls have had an impact, just as they have in our own industry, with pet owners remaining wary about the safety of petfood products.
- With all the focus on health and nutrition, a surprise in the survey findings is that certain categories of information on food product labels showed significant declines. For example, only 30% of respondents reported reading statements of nutritional benefits, down from 43% last year. Still, 65% said they do check the nutrition facts panel, and 52% read the ingredients list and 42%, the calorie/nutrition information. Topping the list of information read on the label? The expiration date, at 66%.
- Brand names took a hit in terms of what consumers read on product labels, down from 53% in 2013 to only 35% this year – possibly a continuing sign of decreasing brand loyalty, especially among younger consumers.
- 62% of the respondents reported that they have given at least a little thought over the past year to environmental sustainability of the foods and beverages they consume, while 35% said they gave it no thought.
- Finally, 37% of US consumers regularly buy food labeled natural, while 35% buy local and 32% said they regularly buy organic products. Petfood has some catching up to do: In Packaged Facts’ January/February 2014 Pet Shopper Survey, only 15% of dog owners and 11% of cat owners reported buying natural petfoods, while only 8% said they buy organic petfood products.