Which label claims and product traits drive dairy purchasing?

By Teodora Lyubomirova

- Last updated on GMT

From organic to pasture-grazed, a new study examined the product attributes that resonate most with dairy and meat consumers.

Does sustainability or animal welfare claims really matter to shoppers when choosing which dairy or meat product to purchase? How about factors such as price, product freshness, taste?

These and many other product traits were put to a group of more than 3,000 European consumers to rank from the most to the least important. The participants were also asked about their opinions of novel packaging solutions like QR codes in conveying additional information about a product, and whether they found sustainability labels helpful when making a purchase.

The survey was carried out as part of research spanning five European countries that aimed to determine which were the key factors that influence consumer purchasing of meat and dairy products.

Researchers from Switzerland's Agroscope research centre alongside academics from the UK, Spain, Sweden and  Czechia teamed up to collect and analyze consumer perceptions data from each country, then compared the separate datasets to deliver ‘important novel insights in terms of cross-cultural research and the connection between theoretical insights and practical implications’.

For the survey, a nationally-representative sample of 3,178 consumers from across the UK, Czechia, Sweden, Spain and Switzerland were asked to rate 18 product attributes – from freshness, taste and price to animal welfare and sustainability – in order of their importance as drivers for meat and dairy purchases.

Those surveyed were also asked if sustainability labels were helpful when navigating label claims, and if labeling solutions such as QR codes were an effective way to access additional information.

Animal welfare trumps sustainability, organic claims ‘least important’

Across all five markets, freshness was the highest-ranked product trait for dairy products. This was followed by quality/taste, and animal welfare, with nutrition and price also considered important. But sustainability-linked attributes such as organic, carbon footprint, food miles and sustainable packaging appeared to be of lesser importance.

The 18 product attributes in order of importance for dairy purchases were ranked as follows:

  1. Freshness
  2. Quality and taste
  3. Animal welfare
  4. Healthy eating
  5. Nutrition
  6. Outdoor-reared/free-range
  7. Price
  8. Locally-produced
  9. Fairtrade
  10. Processing
  11. Pasture-fed
  12. Sustainable packaging
  13. Food miles
  14. Special offers
  15. Carbon footprint
  16. Convenience of use
  17. Familiarity or brand
  18. Organic

The top product attributes for meat were similar, with freshness, quality/taste and animal welfare forming the top 3, while sustainability-linked claims such as organic, carbon footprint and food miles placed lower in the overall ranking (see Sources​ below for more information).

Analyzing the results, the researchers noted that ‘organic’ came last in the meat and dairy rankings. While this suggests it is the least important characteristic according to consumers overall, ‘organic’ had a relatively high median score, meaning that shoppers still viewed it as an important attribute. “One possible reason [for this ranking] is that organic production is associated with a number of different product attributes, such as ‘environmentally friendly’, healthy, expensive, or supportive of farmers,” the authors concluded, adding that consumers may be using labels as heuristics (mental shortcuts) without actually understanding them.

This could be down to the sheer number of eco labels. 

In 2022, the European Commission found there were 232 active ecolabels in the EU, of which almost half contained weak or unverified claims. In 2023, a pan-European study​ found there’s appetite for an international ecolabel for food products, with two-thirds of the 10,000 European consumers surveyed stating that they would welcome a singular label. 

Speaking to DairyReporter, Jeanine Ammann, one of the authors of the study covered in this article, said: “Consumers face the difficulty that they have to take many decisions every day. When they go to a shop, similarly, they have to make various purchase decisions in a short time. This is why they rely on heuristics to make quick decisions without having to think through all the information available and taking a lot of time. For labels, this means that they have to be easy to understand for consumers.

"There are many labels available and if it is unclear to consumers what they actually mean, they won’t spend a lot of time to find out.”

This could be why shoppers indicated that the presence of links or QR code on-pack were of least interest for them when it came to communicating product information, though these solutions were still considered important overall.

Equally, the proliferation of food claims may explain the lower ranking of production system traits such as pasture-grazed, locally-produced and fairtrade relative to the overarching ‘animal welfare’ claim. However, there isn’t a singular definition of animal welfare, and any claims made in relation to a particular production system and its relevance to welfare should be clearly stated and backed-up, the authors said.

Freshness, along with quality and taste, were the most important product traits according to the European consumers surveyed for the study. Image: Getty/Hispanolistic

The stakes are high equally because consumers appear to place greater importance on animal welfare, particularly when compared with attributes related to environmental sustainability.

As for sustainability traits, consumers ranked ‘locally-produced’ as the most important product attribute for meat and dairy, behind sustainable packaging, food miles and carbon footprint. This may be explained with consumers’ tendency to associate local food products with being more sustainable based on existing research, the authors said.

As for whether shoppers found sustainable labels helpful overall, the majority said they did, but the results differed across demographics and regions. For example, in Czechia and Sweden, male consumers found such labels more helpful than females did, likely because female shoppers were already more open to buying sustainable goods.

But there are other factors at play that drive purchasing decisions aside from positive attitudes towards eco-friendly products, including policy and pricing.

Are labels enough to drive change in consumer behaviour?

Debate on whether shoppers are willing to purchase sustainable goods has raged on for years, with CPG firms reporting that there’s a gap between what consumers say they would purchase and what they end up buying.

A 2020 Eurobarometer survey​ found that European consumers prioritized taste, food safety and cost ahead of both ethics and beliefs (e.g. animal welfare or fair trade) and environmental impact; here, too, ‘organic’ was ranked lower than expected as a characteristic linked to sustainable food. The EU has since indicated willingness to crack down on the proliferation of eco labeling, as sister publication FoodNavigator Europe reported​.

In the US, joint market research​ carried out by NielsenIQ and McKinsey analyzed five years’ worth of US consumer spending data to track the rate of sales growth for products with environmental claims on-pack. The research found that consumers were shifting their spending towards products with sustainable claims in two thirds of the food categories, including cheese and yogurt. “There is strong evidence that consumers’ expressed sentiments about ESG-related product claims translate, on average, into actual spending behavior,” the report concluded, but warned that CPG companies should take a holistic approach in both environmental and pricing terms in order to maximize growth.

In the academic study discussed here, the authors also theorized that linking sustainability attributes with other label claims – for example, free-range and improved welfare – may further encourage consumers to purchase that particular product.

Policy-led measures could also drive change, the authors stated, adding that there is evidence from prior research that greater trust in government management of the countryside has been shown to correlate with positive perceptions of locally-produced food and sustainable production practices.

And there are more tangible factors, such as pricing, that can directly influence sustainable meat and dairy purchases.

“I believe that labels are important, as they can provide information to consumers which is important for them to make their purchase decision (e.g. animal welfare),” Jeanine Ammann told us. “However, there is a huge heterogeneity in the labels currently available, which makes is difficult for consumers to keep an overview on what each of the labels mean.

“Various studies found that price and taste are crucial for consumers when buying food. Therefore, price incentives can help drive behaviour change towards more sustainable consumption.”

Consumers across five European countries prioritise animal welfare above environmental sustainability when buying meat and dairy products
Authors: Jeanine Ammann, et al.
Published: Food Quality and Preference, Volume 117, 2024, 105179, ISSN 0950-3293
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodqual.2024.105179

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