Consumer, retail & food service perspectives on food sustainability: Implications for pork producers – an interview with Dr. David Hughes

Dr. David Hughes is Emeritus professor of food marketing at Imperial College London and visiting professor at the Royal Agricultural University UK, also known as ‘Dr. Food’.

This article summarizes an interview with Dr. Hughes on the topic of consumer, retail and food services perspectives on food sustainability and their implications for pork producers.


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Why should we be concerned about food sustainability?

We are living in ‘unprecedented’ times. The coronavirus pandemic, war in Ukraine, global peak in food prices as of March 2022 and current climate change crisis are all putting pressure on global access to and use of natural resources and the provision of a sustainable food supply.

Alongside this, we are experiencing a global growth in the risk of livestock diseases. This is putting added pressure on producers’ ability to provide a continued, sustainable supply of meat products.

And looking forward, the picture is unlikely to get much easier. The World Economic Forum’s 2023 global risk report predicts that over the next 10 years, the majority of major global risks will relate to climate, and over the next 2 years, there will be “persistent poly-crises of food, energy and fertilizer shortages” and we can expect ‘‘further food price spikes as the cost of living crisis continues”.

Are there any positives arising from the pandemic and associated crises for food sustainability?

Yes. It has made countries think again about food security and enabling more food production at home. This includes governments thinking about more secure and sustainable sources of farm inputs, such as fertilizers, gas and oil, moving away from reliance on Russia and investing in other/more local markets.

The global rise in food prices is a particular issue at present. How has this impacted consumers?

The effect on consumers worldwide has been substantial. An EU survey from 2022 found that rising food prices was the top issue of concern to consumers, ahead of the invasion of Ukraine and extreme weather events associated with climate change1 . And if we look beyond the EU, to countries where more than 50% of household income is spent on food, such as Kenya and Myanmar, the impact of rising food prices on household budgets has been, and continues to be, far greater.

Back in the EU, consumers are re-prioritizing the factors driving their purchasing behaviour compared with the pre-pandemic period; paying less heed to issues such as high welfare, organic or ethical production methods in favour of the simple affordability of foods2.

And how have the major markets responded to the cost of living crisis?

Well, in many markets it has brought about intense retail competition and price matching. There has been a polarisation of meat prices to meet a divergence of consumer budgets, some of whom can afford to pay high prices but many of whom are, for the moment at least, looking for the cheapest available option.

A clear price hierarchy of meats has emerged across both EU and US markets (lamb>beef>fish>pork>chicken). This has led to instances of unsustainably low prices of pork. For example, pork loin on sale at below 2 $ US/lb in a major US retail outlet in September 20223 . Such low prices affect not only the purchasing behaviour of consumers but also of retail customers and, if sustained, will inevitably impact on the economic sustainability of pork production.

Which stakeholders are driving the increased focus on food sustainability, and how might their activities affect pork producers?

Pressure to improve food sustainability is coming from multiple stakeholders:

  1. There is increased consumer interest in the effect of food on human health and on the health of the planet. Producers are responding by efforts to measure and reduce the carbon footprint of their products, and this applies particularly to meat products that carry a higher carbon footprint relative to dairy products and plant-based foods. Carbon footprint estimations are not easy to perform but are becoming important for influencing buyer and consumer purchasing behaviour.
  2. Local and regional activist groups are demanding greater consideration of the impacts of food production on the health of the planet and are increasingly holding producers, retailers and governments to account on issues associated with food sustainability.
  3. Governments themselves are taking steps to improve food sustainability. Examples include the 2021 COP26 climate change pledge by 105 countries to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030 and the EU goal to become 30% organic in food production by 2030. Such challenging targets will have a substantial impact on the production of pork and other livestock, requiring significant action over a relatively short timeframe. It may also present a direct conflict with food security goals if these involve seeking to increase production.
  4. Retailers and manufacturers worldwide are starting to make big commitments to reduce their carbon emissions. This will inevitably impact on producers, in particular on pork producers, because it is on-farm where the major contribution to the carbon footprint of meat products is felt. They are also rolling out initiatives to meet consumer demands for more healthy, more sustainable foods. These include the use of ‘nutri-scores’ and ‘eco-scores’ on meat products and other fresh foods, that are emerging in multiple countries. Pork producers will need to consider whether their products are likely to get a ‘green A’ score or a ‘red G’ score because this will influence both consumer and retailer buying decisions.

Based on what you have said, it seems that we are in a situation of competing demands on meat producers coming from multiple stakeholders: on the one hand the need for products to be readily available and affordable whilst on the other having been produced in such a way that it delivers against a growing list of complex consumer and wider stakeholder interests. Is that right?

Yes, that’s it. And the challenge for pork producers today is that as they strive for ever higher productivity and efficiency, this must be balanced against stakeholder (especially consumer) demands for food that has been produced to high animal welfare standards, using production methods that are ethical and sustainable, with high regard for the environment and with supply chain traceability and transparency.

This challenge is likely to increase further as we come out of the current global cost of living crisis and consumer decision making shifts to being less price-driven and giving greater consideration to a whole host of other interests that include (but are not limited to) where the food was produced, how it was produced, its environmental and wider sustainability credentials. Producers need to be aware of these interests and ready for this shift.

Do you have any final positive message for pork producers?

Yes. I think pork producers worldwide can take some reassurance from the fact that, in most first world regions, there is a high degree of consumer trust for farmers. For example, in Europe, 67% of consumers across all EU countries expressed trust in framers, compared with only 48% expressing trust in manufacturers, in a 2022 EIT Food Trust survey4 . This means that there is a potential opportunity for producers to play a greater role in communicating with consumers about meat products in the future, for the benefit of the whole production chain.


  1. Source: McKinsey & Company Europe Consumer Pulse Survey 9/23–10/2-2022, n = 5,153 ^France, Germany, Italy, Spain, UK), sampled to match European general population 18+ years.
  2. Lumina Intelligence survey of 1,000 UK adults.
  3. Prepacked boneless pork loin for sale at $ 1.99/lb in Tom Thumb grocery store (Albertsons) in Fort Worth, Texas on 22nd September 2022.
  4. The EIT Food Trust Report, 2022. Sustainable food choices and the role of trust in the food chain.