Horizon Blog: Do consumers trust imported food products?

Wednesday, 6 October 2021

In our latest blog, our Consumer Insight analyst Rachel Rose takes a look at just what Brits think about imported food products against the backdrop of trade negotiations with Australia and the US.

New trade agreements have dominated the headlines in recent months following EU Exit, with the Australia deal a watershed moment, as the first the UK has negotiated from scratch. Though the Biden administration has meant negotiations between the UK and US have taken a back seat, it hasn’t stopped the media from speculating about how these deals will affect the food products on our shelves, with a sharp focus on the standards to which they are produced. At AHDB, we were interested in finding out what people really think behind the media smokescreen.

We commissioned Blue Marble to conduct research on our behalf to give us a flavour of what people really think about imported agri-food products. It found that Brits had a much better perception of Australian production than the US, in comparison to UK production. Just under half (48 per cent) of people questioned believed US animal welfare standards are lower than the UK’s, yet less than a fifth (18%) thought the same of Australian standards. The results were similar when asked about the quality of meat and dairy produce, with 46 per cent thinking US products were worse quality than the UK but just 16 per cent thinking the same of Australian products.

The research also showed around half of consumers agreed it would be useful to have labelling on packs saying how and where animals were reared to help them make purchasing decisions. It’s important to not put too much emphasis on this, though, as our other market research has shown that factors such as welfare and country of origin sit lower on customers’ wish lists than price, taste and convenience. At the same time, our market research with YouGov in August showed that if sold at the same price as British meat in shops or restaurants, 64 per cent of customers would buy Irish, 28 per cent Australian and just 12 per cent American. This suggests a confidence in Irish meat and dairy, probably as a result of our long-term trading relationship and awareness that – for now at least – production standards are equivalent to our own.

So, in the longer term, how do we expect consumers to react to imported products appearing on the shelves? A recent survey by Which? found two-thirds of the public think they are kept in the dark about trade deals and 87 per cent think imported food standards should align with our own, an opinion potentially fuelled by media coverage and speculation. But while this would suggest a certain wariness towards imported foods, there may well be other considerations at play in the future.

If the price point is right, especially in the case of an economic downturn, cost-savvy customers may well turn to cheaper products. Foodservice could also be an important market, given that provenance rarely features on menus. On top of this, as we strike deals with some of the leading and most experienced agri-food exporters like the US and Australia, we know they are able to adapt supply chains to meet the welfare and production standards of a variety of different markets. The key question may not be whether consumers have the appetite for imported products but whether exporters have the appetite and financial incentives to target the UK as a potential market.

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