Browsing labels in the meat aisle can be confusing, especially when it comes to the word "natural," and new research shows consumers not only misinterpret the label, they're willing to pay significantly more for natural steak.
Those unfamiliar with the U.S. Department of Agriculture definition are willing to pay $1.26 more per pound for the standalone natural label. And they're willing to pay even more when combined with other positively perceived labels.
Carola Grebitus, assistant professor of food industry management at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University and her co-authors conducted an experiment with 663 beef-eating consumers, testing their willingness to pay for steak labeled with different attributes -- being natural, grass fed or corn fed, fed without genetically modified feed and produced without growth hormones and antibiotics.
Consumers who were given the USDA definition of natural were not willing to pay a premium for the natural label alone, unless the natural label appears together with other positively perceived labels. Researchers found that informed consumers will shell out $3.07 more per pound for steak labeled as natural and no growth hormones.
Those who already considered themselves familiar with the natural definition also did not place a premium on natural beef, but were willing to pay significantly more for the natural and grass-fed label combination -- $3.80 more per pound compared to the no-label option and $2.93 more per pound for the natural and no-growth hormone label.
"Our results indicate that consumers who are unfamiliar with the definition of natural overestimate the positive effects of ‘natural' production and therefore are willing to pay a premium for natural labeled beef," Grebitus said. "Labeling food with claims that are not clearly defined can be costly for consumers and hold disadvantages for food manufacturers or producers who don't use such claims."
The study was published in Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy.
Grazing toxic-fescue pastures
New forage research gives a reason for not grazing toxic fescue grass too short.
The bottom 2 inches of infected grass holds the highest levels of the alkaloid, causing problems for grazing livestock.
University of Missouri Extension forage specialist Craig Roberts said the findings guide ways to manage fescue's toxic impact. The message for herd owners is don't allow cows to grub fescue pastures into the ground.
Previous research showed the plants are most toxic after seed set. Sarah Kenyon, an MU Extension agronomist at West Plains, found that the most toxic portion is the bottom 2 inches.
Those findings will be a great help in pasture grazing management, Roberts said.
Farmers over the years developed ways to prevent poisoning. They learned that seed heads and stems were high in toxin. Grazing before seed set or clipping heads reduced toxicosis. Now farmers will know not to graze down to the root crown, Kenyon said. Leaving a 3-inch stubble reduces problems.
The toxic alkaloid, an ergovaline, is found in Kentucky 31 fescue, the most-used grass in Missouri pastures. The toxin comes from an endophyte fungus inside the plant. Endophyte, the scientific term, means "inside the plant."
The best way to solve toxicosis is to kill the toxic grass and reseed a novel-endophyte fescue. Plant breeders introduced a naturally occurring nontoxic fungus into new varieties. Novel endophytes protect the plants but aren't toxic.