- Among food-related causes, buying local has the highest awareness among U.S. consumers at 46%, according to a study from Nielsen. But based on a recent survey of 20,000 shoppers, Nielsen discovered that consumers’ definition of the term "local" varies depending on the product.
- Some people consider products local if they come from the same city, while others think food is local as long as it is produced in the U.S. Survey respondents agreed the most about local labels on shelf-stable goods, with 34% defining local within this category as products coming from the U.S.
- Bakery (31%) and eggs (29%) also offered some consensus, with shoppers agreeing that local for these foods means the product came from the same city as the store they are purchased in. Categories where consumers agreed least about what local means include deli meats, deli cheeses and seafood.
The local food market in the U.S. is expected to reach $20 billion by next year, up from $5 billion in 2008, according to Packaged Facts, and a recent survey from AgFunder showed that 84% of respondents had a locally produced food on their shopping list. But without an official definition from the USDA or FDA providing uniformity and integrity for this label claim, brands and retailers can apply it to virtually any product.
One of the reasons why consumers have such different perceptions of what local means is likely due to the difficulty in tracking a product’s origin in today’s complex global food supply chain. Nielsen noted product origin is often only marketed on a shelf at a retailer, but something will only be labeled "local" if it's relevant to consumers in a given geographic region.
According to Nielsen's survey, 58% of consumers said that buying local produce is important, and grocers have taken note. Many retailers have remodeled their produce departments or expanded offerings in recent months to include more local selection, including the new Giant Heirloom banner and recently renovated Hannaford supermarkets.
For dairy, deli cheese, deli meat, and meat products, between 23% and 32% of consumers perceive a local claim to mean that the product comes from the same state where the store is located. This broadens retailers’ options to meet local demands in these categories, but in states where dairy production is scant, it might still be a challenge to source these products locally.
Frozen goods, seafood and shelf-stable goods are considered local by 27% to 34% of consumers as long as they come from the U.S., giving retailers the most leeway when it comes to sourcing. This is particularly helpful for landlocked states that need to satisfy the demand for local seafood products.
Understanding the "local" concept gets even more complicated when consumers define local in terms of miles. The largest percentage of survey respondents across all product categories said that something should be grown or raised within 50 miles to be considered local.
Without defined parameters for local food sourcing and labeling, retailers and shoppers have had to navigate this highly important standard on their own, but the study provides helpful highlights on how retailers can apply consumers’ perceptions to their practices.