Organic food processing: Discussing technologies with occasional organic consumers
Knowledge and expectations on food processing was elicited by focus groups with occasional organic consumers using the examples of milk and orange juice. Mostly, knowledge was low and no clear preferences regarding specific technologies were found.
This study followed an exploratory qualitative approach and eight focus group discussions with organic food consumers were conducted in Germany and Switzerland. According to the project specification, we chose milk and orange juice focusing on varying technologies mainly concerning shelf life. No matter which technology was discussed, participants had various and often contradicting opinions and were only little conscious about processing technologies.
Processing was mainly associated negatively with additives, artificial flavors, preservatives, E-numbers, chemicals, and plastic packaging. But participants also saw advantages: time saving, convenient, easy to portion, and enabling consumption of a variety of non-seasonal goods.
Advantages also held true for processed organic food but consumers’ concept of ‘organic’ did not include any ideas on organic processing. Participants rather associated transparent and sustainable value chains with organic food. Preferences for milk depended primarily on participants’ lifestyle and habits. Some favoured homogenization and others not, depending on what they were used to.
When it came to technologies concerning shelf life, pasteurized milk was accepted and for many, microfiltrated ESL milk, that is ‘fresh milk’ with the addition ‘longer durable’, was a good alternative to just pasteurized milk due to a longer shelf life. For a few critical consumers, ESL milk was too processed. UHT milk was the most debated: it was not in line with some participants’ idea of organic processing and, thus, not bought, others bought it out of habit or convenience.
Generally, for many participants the organic nature of the animal husbandry mattered more than technology and nutritional values. When discussing orange juice, juice from concentrate often evoked a spontaneous negative reaction. Some participants were also positively minded due to equally good nutritional values and the environmental benefit of transportation.
Concerning shelf life, participants preferred and associated fresh juice with organic orange juice and were generally positive towards high pressure preservation; some had some environmental concerns, such as presumably high energy consumption and use of required PET-bottles. Often, participants associated a longer shelf life with less food waste.
Summarising, consumers knew very little about processing technologies and rather focused on organic production of raw material. Asking participants for their preferences for processing technologies often overstrained their judgement, even though some basic information was provided. Although most consumers of processed organic food did not actively search for information on food processing, concluding that they are not interested might be rash. The use of processing technologies in the organic food sector should be carefully reflected having latent consumer preferences in mind.
Ronja Hüppe, Katrin Zander, University of Kassel.