Dairy case
October 28, 2016

Making Sense of Consumer Preference

 |  By: Mike Opperman

Retail food companies spend millions on research to find out what consumers want, then create products to meet that demand. Sometimes these products carry claims such as “rBST free” or “non-GMO” that impact the use of technologies available to dairy producers, creating frustration and confusion around why companies may support a belief that may not be backed by science.

“We do a ton of consumer research and make significant investments before we launch a new product,” says Deb Arcoleo, director of product transparency with the Hershey Company. “We have to listen to consumers or we won’t stay competitive.”

Arcoleo and three others made up a panel at a recent Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin event. The group provided insight into why retail food companies make the decisions they make, and what producers can do about it.

rBST is an example of a technology that has been restricted mostly by consumer preference. Most fluid milk is now rBST free, and it’s now becoming more prevalent in cheese, but for a different reason. “For cheese rBST free is really more important in whey production,” says Goedhart Westers, vice president of business development at Grassland Dairy Products. “Whey goes into so many different product categories. It’s hard to sell something that people perceive as containing hormones to health conscious consumers.”

rBST can be a deal breaker in international markets too, says Westers, especially as it relates to milk powder. “Our buyers have choices,” he says. “rBST is an order qualifying deal. If products are not rBST free, then there’s no deal.”

All panelists agree that producers play a key role in educating all facets of the food system. “Consumer transparency is the number one challenge for our company,” says Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, director of sustainability with JBS USA. She says they spend significant time educating their customers, who are the large retail brands that sell to consumers. “And the best way to educate our customers is to connect them directly to producers.”

What producers should say is actually simple, says Dr. Jennifer Walker, director of dairy stewardship with Dean Foods. “People want to hear the truth,” she says. “I have yet to see the perfect farm, but we have a lot of producers that are trying hard to do a good job and that’s what we want you to do.”

Trust and honesty are the essence of what consumers want to hear, says Arcoleo. “Tell the whole story and don’t expect to be perfect. Consumers will value your honesty.” Like Walker, Arcoleo says that consumers want to hear the truth about what is working on your farm and what’s not. “They especially want to know why you are doing something that they might not agree with,” Arcoleo says. 

We need to support the right of consumers to choose, Walker says, even if the choice is something that producers don’t agree with. That’s why education is so critical, and why producers have a significant responsibility as part of the education process.

It’s up to producers to take an active role, says Wisconsin agriculture secretary Ben Brancel, who also spoke at the conference. “If you haven’t opened up your doors to a tour from a non-ag group you are doing a disservice to the entire industry,” he says. “It looks like you’re hiding something. And if you don’t tell your story, someone else will.”