What beats sustainability with seafood consumers?

It should come as no surprise to find that cost and taste are the two biggest factors influencing shoppers when purchasing fish, according to a report published recently in New Zealand. Sustainability is the third most important influence on purchasing decisions, followed by origin and capture method.

However, two thirds of people who eat fish at least twice a month don’t bother to read the label so any message as to where the fish has come from or how it has been caught is ignored anyway.

Of the one in three who regularly read the label, nearly all (91 percent) said they found the information confusing and that it didn’t always allay their fears about sustainability, or about origin and environmental impact.

The research was conducted by Stormline, and it reinforces the findings of a similar recent survey into ethical food carried out in the United Kingdom by Mintel and reported in the Daily Telegraph. That survey, of 15,000 shoppers, found that about half did not care where their food came from.

Again the question of cost reared its head. “Cost remains a key barrier for many buying into ethical food and drink products,” said Richard Ford, a senior food analyst at Mintel.

It seems as though food shoppers expect to have to pay more for ethically sourced products but resent doing so. In fact half of those questioned said they would only pay more if they understood clearly what the extra money was for.

“They expect to be informed and reassured over why they’re paying extra and where the money is going,” Ford said.

There has been a lot of discussion as to whether British consumers would pay more for sustainably sourced seafood. Professor Cathy Roheim of the University of Idaho was reported as saying that U.K. consumers are paying premiums of up to 10 to 15 percent for Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified seafood. However, Martin Jaffa of Callander McDowell, writing in his reLAKSation newsletter, refutes this statement.

“The assertion that U.K. consumers are willing to pay more for MSC labelled fish and seafood comes from the findings of a paper Professor Roheim co-authored in 2011. Her findings were confused by comparing branded and unbranded products, some of which were labelled MSC and some of which were not. She also compared products that were completely different from each other and thus have a different market position.”

Jaffa said: “We have looked extensively at the seafood sector, especially products that are like for like and can find no evidence at all that U.K. consumers will pay more for sustainable seafood.”

Roheim and Jaffa are obviously entitled to their different views but there is one point on which they are in complete agreement. Jaffa also said about the Roheim report: “Whilst on one hand Professor Roheim suggests that more consumers prefer eco-labeled seafood and will pay more to buy it, she also says that focus groups and surveys show that many consumers have no idea what the term sustainability means and tend to discount it. This is more in line with our own perception.”

This is an argument which will run and run. Will consumers pay more for eco-labelled seafood? MSC certification is a costly business and it is reasonable for seafood companies to expect a bigger return on their outlay if they go down this route.

However, as the Stormline research illustrated, cost comes above sustainability in influencing shoppers when purchasing fish. So if faced with higher purchase prices, customers are quite likely to vote with their feet and head to the chicken counter instead.


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