Do animal welfare labels in supermarkets influence our purchasing behavior?

Meat shelf with animal welfare labels

In the virtual supermarket, large banners with the husbandry labels were placed above the meat shelf. © ILR/Uni Bonn

Meat, sausage, milk and dairy products: Information about animal welfare can be found on many foods in the supermarket. Information about how the animals are kept is clearly printed on the packaging. But do these labels actually influence consumer purchasing behavior? And how do the labels have to be placed for this? A virtual shopping study with differently labeled meat packaging provides initial information. Accordingly, large banners with labels about the husbandry style attached to the shelves had no influence on the purchase decision.

For several years now, red, blue, orange or green labels have appeared on meat packaging in our supermarkets. The four associated levels provide information about how the respective animal was kept and are intended to encourage customers to buy animal products with better husbandry standards. Red means that only the legally required minimum standards of animal welfare were observed during keeping; Green, on the other hand, stands for comparatively species-appropriate animal husbandry. “But such information is often not consciously perceived by customers,” says Leonie Bach from the University of Bonn. Because in the supermarket there is a lot of other information competing for the customers’ attention.

Shopping study in the virtual supermarket

To find out whether the placement of labels has an influence on consumers’ purchasing behavior, a team led by Bach conducted a shopping study in a virtual supermarket. The market researchers examined whether the labels had a different effect if they were larger and therefore more visible to customers. For the experiments, 630 test subjects invited by a market research institute pushed their shopping carts through digital aisles that were modeled on those of a real market. As with modern video games, the test subjects saw the shelves from a first-person perspective and were able to pick up products and look at them from all sides. In the end, they should decide whether they would buy the product – at least hypothetically. Because the participants did not receive any real goods and did not have to pay for them.

Meat shelf with animal welfare labels
For one group of participants, the corresponding labels were also attached next to the price tags for products in husbandry levels 3 and 4. © ILR/Uni Bonn

Bach and her colleagues tested three labeling variants in the virtual supermarket: For one group of participants, the labels were only visible on the meat packaging, as is currently the case. In a second group, large banners showing the labels also hung above the shelves. In the third group, the labels were also attached next to the price tags – but only for the orange and green labels, which indicate products from more species-appropriate husbandry.

Visible animal welfare labels do not influence the purchasing decision

The sobering result: The test subjects in all three groups thought about the choice for the same amount of time and in the end chose meat from more species-appropriate husbandry with similar frequency. The more visible placement of the labels above the shelves or next to the price tags did not lead to a change in purchasing behavior. “One reason could be that the information did not receive the necessary attention, despite the prominent way in which it was presented,” Bach suspects. “Some of our test subjects stated in the subsequent survey that they had not consciously noticed this.”

The authors would like to see even more realistic purchasing experiments for future studies that will test other animal welfare labels, including for dairy products and eggs. The participants should then receive the purchased products, similar to online shopping, and also have to pay for them.

Source: Leonie Bach (University of Bonn) et al., Journal of Consumer Protection and Food Safety, doi: 10.1007/s00003-024-01488-7

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