Consumers have a tendency to say one thing and mean something else. Traceability is a classic example. U.S. consumers may claim they want a fully traceable pork system, but in reality they're more concerned about certain product attributes.

"Bundling traceability with another characteristic, like animal welfare, appears to be the strategy for value-added products," says DeeVon Bailey, Utah State University agricultural economist. "In Europe, traceability is a requirement for marketing a product, but in the United States, producers are looking at niche markets for various product characteristics."

Bailey and his Utah State colleague, David Dickinson, studied consumers' attitudes and willingness to pay for meat traceability characteristics in the United States to those of consumers in the European Union – specifically in the United Kingdom. They wanted to see if EU-type traceability systems would have market value in the United States.

They found traceable attributes, such as antibiotic-free, organic or pasture-raised are important marketing characteristics for pork products in the U.K., and offer potential in the United States. (See sidebar for more complete results on this study.)

"The study shows growing concern by all consumers about meat products, especially when it comes to food safety," says Bailey.

"The potential to market on specific characteristics is significant," he adds. Take Gerber, for instance. This company knows the orchard or field that a product comes from. This is a big issue in the baby-food industry."

"EU consumers don't want to eat meat products with certain attributes, such as containing antibiotics or from sows that lived in stalls," explains Dermot Hayes, agricultural economist at Iowa State University. "They tell their retailer they don't want that kind of pork, then the retailer passes those demands along to producers." This practice is more evident in the EU because of its fully traceable system.

This may be a plus for EU consumers, but not for its pork producers. "One thing we've learned is that no producer or processor in the EU could get a premium for traceable product," says Brian Buhr, University of Minnesota agricultural economist.

Traceability can result in consumers shifting purchases. Such was the case for beef in the EU Hayes points out those consumers don't like Holstein meat because it's too lean. "Once traceability was introduced, producers couldn't sell Holstein meat," he notes. "Producers have to certify that the beef they're selling didn't come from a Holstein."

The study could leave one with the impression that EU consumers have a true willingness to pay for traceability. In reality, Hayes says, they still look for the cheapest meat.

In the United States, Buhr doesn't believe there's much consumer demand for traceability. Although, he is convinced that traceability helps accomplish a goal. "Traceability supports a company's reputation and reliability," says Buhr.

Suppose there is an outbreak of Salmonella, a traceable system allows a company to contain and control the problem by having to recall perhaps only 10 boxes of potentially contaminated product compared to 10,000 pounds.

"I see traceability as a consumer trust issue," says Buhr. "If I'm Smithfield Foods and I have a pamphlet saying my product is antibiotic-free or raised a certain way, there's no reason for a traceability program unless I've breached consumer trust.

If a consumer has trust in a brand and the company does everything to support that, where does traceability come in, he asks.

There also are public-health issues to consider. Buhr explains that as it now stands, even the best traceability system breaks down in the foodservice area. "Forty percent of our food consumption involves the restaurant trade," he says. "But once the product leaves its box or bag, you lose the traceability value for the consumer unless the restaurant has an identification or tracking system."

The United States risks losing potential export markets if other countries, such as the EU, can successfully sell products based on either real or perceived food safety and quality assurance characteristics.

The questions still remain, will consumers pay up for traceable attributes? Or, will traceability be the price of admission into the marketplace?

Tallying Up the Extras
Everything has a price. But, are U.S. consumers willing to pay more for fully traceable pork and beef products? The answer is yes, according to research that DeeVon Bailey and David Dickinson, agricultural economists at Utah State University, conducted.

Overall, the results show that consumers are willing to dig into their pockets a little deeper for extra product attributes. Here's the amount of extra money consumers will spend on a $3 sandwich to add:

  • Basic traceability: pork, $0.50; beef, $0.23;
  • Animal treatment: pork, $0.53; beef, $0.50;
  • Food safety (Salmonella and E. coli testing): pork, $0.59; beef, $0.63;
  • All three attributes: pork, $1.14; beef, $1.06.

The findings come from a series of controlled laboratory experiments in which consumers placed bids in a theoretical auction where they could upgrade meat products. Study participants were allocated a "free lunch" along with $15 cash. They could "bid" on what they were willing to pay for meat-sandwich upgrades that offered certain traits.

The results indicate that U.S. consumers seem to value specific attributes or attribute combinations more than just traceability or identity preservation.

Bailey says the study results still need to be confirmed with field trials, but he's confident the findings would be similar. He does point out, however, that this study doesn't address how a traceable system would impact production or processing costs.

Comparing U.S. and EU Consumers
Are U.S. consumers similar to their counterparts in the European Union? In some ways yes, but not all, when you're talking about a traceable food system.

EU consumers are more willing to pay for traceability than U.S. consumers, says DeeVon Bailey, agricultural economist at Utah State University.

Media coverage is one of the drivers. "If a breach in the EU food system occurs, it's a lead story. In the United States, it has a much lower profile," he contends.

Bailey is basing his findings off a new research project he conducted with his Utah State colleague, David Dickinson. The study compares U.S. and United Kingdom consumers' willingness to pay for traceable attributes in meat products.

Many consumers in the United States and EU are willing to pay more for certain product attributes in pork. However, the results also suggest that there are significant differences in the importance that U.S. and EU consumers place on specific traceable characteristics. EU consumers appear to have more uniform attitudes about the value of traceability than do Americans. This is due in part to those consumers being in the heart of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis.

American consumers are more concerned that their food is safe than about the process it followed, compared with EU consumers. Bailey says this implies the actions that the EU's private and public sectors have taken to enhance food-safety practices – such as requiring traceability – may have restored higher confidence in the EU food system than has existed in recent years.

Highly educated Americans are not willing to pay more for traceable attributes, while their counterparts in the EU are. This suggests that educated Americans may not be as convinced about the potential benefits of product attributes as their EU peers.

Also, consumers in both countries who have had the most exposure to foodborne illness information through the media appear less willing to pay extra for traceable attributes. Bailey believes this means that well-informed individuals are probably more able to judge the actual risks posed by foodborne diseases.

Older, married people in the EU are willing to pay more for traceable attributes than are Americans with the same demographic characteristics. This may reflect a greater concern about foodborne illness that exists in the EU

While traceability hasn't been a big issue in the United States, the study shows it is important in the EU However, food trends often start in Europe, then float across the ocean.