Dairy Today: Rethinking What's for Dinner

June 21, 2009 07:00 PM
By Catherine MerloWestern editor for Dairy Today

It's 5:30 on a Wednesday evening, and shoppers are lining up at the deli counter inside the Albertsons Supermarket in northwest Bakersfield, Calif.

They're eyeing grab-and-go meal items: fried and whole roasted chicken, prepared salads, baked beans, potato wedges. "I want something quick and easy,” says a woman, loading several items into her shopping basket.

That comes as no surprise to John Stanton, a professor of food marketing at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, Pa., who has made a career of observing and interpreting consumer behavior.

"For the past 20 years, the driving consumer forces in food have been convenience, taste and health, in that order,” Stanton says.

But while those forces remain strong, he's got a few new trends to add. "Food safety is the No. 1 issue for U.S. consumers today,” Stanton says.

Consumer trust in the overall food system has eroded, say David Pelzer and Michael Stammer of Dairy Management, Inc. (DMI).

This is partly due to widely reported incidents of foodborne illnesses from contaminated spinach, lettuce, jalapeño peppers and ground beef. Attitudes toward milk and dairy have been affected too, though neither was involved, Pelzer and Stammer say. That's led consumers to demand more proof that their milk and other food is safe.

Such demands, however, present a dilemma for consumers, Stanton says, because they don't understand the current food system. "So they use surrogate measures, like turning to locally produced food,” he says. "They trust that their neighbor, the farmer down the road, is not going to harm them.”

A National Restaurant Association survey of more than 1,600 professional chefs late last year revealed that nutrition and philosophy-driven food choices would be the hottest trends on restaurant menus in 2009.

The survey's No. 1 trend? Locally grown produce. Bite-sized desserts and organics ranked second and third. Healthy kids' meals placed fourth.

Artisan cheeses and sustainable seafood were among the top 20 trends.

Yet "green” or sustainable influences may not drive sales as much as media hype might indicate. A survey conducted earlier this year by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and Deloitte showed that while 54% of shoppers often consider environmental sustainability characteristics in their buying decisions, they actually bought "green” products on just 22% of their shopping trips.

That doesn't surprise Stanton either. "I put sustainability into the same category as low fat,” he says. "Everybody talks about it, but no one seems to be buying it. I just want a delicious, cold, refreshing glass of milk. I leave it to the dairy industry to produce it in a sustainable way.”

Interest in animal welfare, however, is a very real trend. California's newly passed Proposition 2, with its emphasis on changing caged animal production, reflects consumers' concern for how livestock is raised, says Robert James, dairy science professor at Virginia Tech University.

What to make of changing food trends? For starters, dairy must continue to find ways to be more convenient, Stanton says. The cardboard, hard-to-open milk carton isn't the answer. Resealable tops, containers that fit into cars' drink holders, cute packaging and colorful "chugs” are.

Dairy might also rethink its practice of featuring photos of missing children on its milk cartons, Stanton says. He thinks packaging that shows the farms and people who produce the milk would help tie a dairy product to its origins.

Dairy could also improve its presence in grocery stores and supermarkets. "Some people call the dairy section ‘Siberia,'” Stanton says. "It's white and cold. Shoppers grab what they want and run out as quickly as they can.”

Dairy would fare better if it were positioned throughout the store, just as soft drinks are, he adds. That includes the increasingly popular displays at supermarkets that offer ready-to-assemble meals in one spot.

The dairy industry could do more to capitalize on the growing interest in food safety, locally grown food and animal welfare, says Virginia Tech's James. "The average consumer knows very little about science,” he says. "So we need to build good relationships with consumers.”

On environmental issues, "the dairy industry needs to take the high road,” James says. "A good example of this is the Waste Solutions Forum in the East, where environmental groups, animal industries and government agents work together to solve problems rather than combat each other in court.”

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