Public attitudes towards, and use of, general food labelling
Wednesday 13 January 2010
A review of the available research and evaluation of people’s understanding and use of general food labelling.
Contractor: Oxford Evidentia
This research reviews the available research and evaluates people's understanding and use of general food labelling. General food labelling refers to the labels on food products other than nutritional content, some of which are mandatory (e.g. name of the food, date mark, storage instructions, weight, ingredients list, quantity of ingredients, name and address of manufacturer) and some that are voluntary (e.g. quality assurance schemes, logos, animal welfare information, marketing claims/information, brand information, method of slaughter, production methods).
This evidence review of general food labelling addressed the following questions:
- What does the available evidence tell us about how food labelling is used to influence consumers' food purchasing decisions?
- How do consumers use country of origin labels on a food product?
- What does the available evidence tell us about the variations in consumers’ demands for, and their understanding and use of, general food labelling (e.g. by socio-demographics, food preferences)?
The influence of food labelling on consumers’ purchasing decisions
- Food labels in the UK are read and used by about half the population. People in Scotland and England may have less interest in labels than those in some other European countries.
- Consumers mainly read food labels for information about the safety and security of food products.
- The time available for buying food also affects consumers' use of food labels. So too does the format of many food labels (size, fonts, style of language), and consumers’ values and attitudes to food production, distribution, and preservation.
- Food labelling on most products presents people with more information than they can reasonably process, resulting in information overload. This often leads to confusion, misunderstanding and uncertainty which, in turn, causes scepticism and mistrust of food labels.
- There is some evidence that consumers view governmental and public institutions as responsible for quality assurance, despite some mistrust of such organisations.
Consumers' use of country of origin labels on a food product
- Country of origin labelling is an important indicator for consumers of both the quality and safety of food. A key feature of country of origin labelling is the traceability of food products, particularly the ability to track the food chain.
- There is also evidence of confusion as to whether 'country of origin' (particularly with animal products), refers to where animals are born, raised, slaughtered or processed.
- The country of origin literature is full of evidence of 'consumer ethnocentricism', 'food nationalism' and 'food patriotism'. This generally refers to the belief that one's own country or region produces safer and better food than other countries or regions.
- The evidence on the price and willingness to pay for country (or region) of origin products is mixed. Consumers who have a commitment to local, organic and ‘natural’ methods of food production are likely to pay a premium despite their economic circumstances.
- Price ranks alongside country of origin and 'useby'/'best before' dates as the most commonly sought information on food labels.
Variations in consumers' demands for, understanding, and use of general food labelling
- Consumers' use of food labels is not uniform, though it does not consistently vary according to the socio-economic or socio-demographic backgrounds of consumers. Consumers' values, attitudes and food preferences (vegan, organic, natural, etc) seem to influence the use of general food labels more so than socio-economic and socio-demographic factors.
- Consumers' responses to food labels also vary according to different food products and, in the case of animal products, different types of meat.