A working group for the European Commission, consisting of scientists from all over Europe, has outlined how European food consumption can become healthier and more sustainable. Jutta Roosen, Professor of Marketing and Consumer Research at the TUM School of Management, contributed to the report. The findings are expected to help EU commissioners revise the Farm to Fork Strategy. In an interview, Prof. Jutta Roosen talks about labeling, advertising to children, and other possible ways to achieve more sustainable and healthier food consumption.
What influences the food we buy?
Buying food is a very simple decision. We don't think about it very long and it's often a habitual purchase. In our review paper for the European Commission, we found that there are many elements in the consumer's immediate environment that influence food choices, such as prices, availability or the social context in which you live. Above all, we need to try to create incentives in this environment for consumers to choose healthier and more sustainable products.
Why is it that attitudes towards sustainable food from surveys are often not reflected in consumer behavior?
We call this effect the attitude-behavior gap, which means that consumers have very positive attitudes toward sustainable products in principle, but do not act on them when making purchasing decisions. There are many reasons for this, including willingness to pay and the lack of choice. In the case of animal welfare products, for example, we have found that increasing the number of these products makes it more likely that customers will choose products with higher standards.
What needs to happen to promote sustainable and healthy diets?
The approach of our expert group is to look at the whole food system. Policies need to be coordinated. We need to avoid policies that promote sustainable food, but then subsidize contradictory production methods.
The responsibility cannot be placed on the consumer alone. Policymakers must support them to ensure that they have the food security and financial means to afford such products. In addition, the entire food environment must be designed to facilitate sustainable consumption.
It is a long way from the EU level to individual consumer choice. How can we use EU legislation to influence consumer behaviour?
Consumers need to be empowered to express their preferences when shopping. For this to happen, legislation needs to be harmonized across Europe. The European Union can bring coherence to Member State initiatives and promote common standards. For example, there could be recommendations on advertising to children. Then each country would not have to develop its own standards.
The EU itself has opportunities in the area of consumer information on packaging, which is mainly regulated at EU level. The Farm to Fork Strategy, an agricultural policy aimed at making the EU food system more sustainable, has several objectives. For example, reducing food waste and increasing organic farming are already targets. Demand needs to be created to achieve these goals. Simplified nutrition labelling on packaging can help by extending it to include sustainability. For consumers, this will make the production process more transparent when they shop at retail.
What do you think is the most effective way to help consumers?
I think the most important starting points are to coordinate policies and to develop comprehensive policy packages. In order to change behavior, it is important to coordinate different measures and to choose different approaches. Not only labeling, but also the choices in a standard supermarket need to be discussed. For example, can we require that a certain percentage of products meet certain criteria?
How we deal with new media is another issue. For example, if we ban or restrict advertising aimed at children, we can hardly prevent children from seeing the advertising on Instagram or TikTok anyway. Today, we have far less power to intervene than with traditional television advertising on the children's channel.
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