The organic products market has been steadily growing throughout the world (Shi-ming and Sauerborn, 2006). In the United States, sales of organic products reached $21.1 billion in 2008 (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2012), continuing the upward trend observed over the last decade. This rapidly expanding consumer base has changed the organic foods marketplace. Since 2000, more organic food has been purchased in conventional supermarkets than in any other venue in the United States, including specialty stores (Dimitri and Greene, 2002). This suggests that consumers are often presented with competing organic and conventional product choices. Fresh produce comprises the majority of the organic food products sold (Dimitri and Greene, 2002) and is the focus of this study. Given the likelihood that consumers make comparisons between organic and conventional produce, consumer perception plays an important role in making the decision to purchase organic (Lockie et al., 2002; Roitner-Schobesberger et al., 2008; Tung et al., 2012).
There is a growing body of literature describing the motivators for buying organic foods, and more specifically organic produce. Research has shown that organic purchases are driven mostly by health and price considerations (Gracia and Magistris, 2008; Lockie et al., 2002; Ozguven, 2012). Organic produce is generally perceived as healthier than conventional produce (Anderson et al., 2006; Lea and Worsley, 2005), although there is no scientific consensus supporting this (Bourn and Prescott, 2002; Chen, 2005; Huber et al., 2011; Siderer et al., 2005). Additionally, organic produce is perceived as fresher, with higher nutritional quality compared with conventional produce. Further, the “functional food” or nutraceutical properties are often perceived to be greater in organic produce compared with conventional produce (Naspetti and Zanoli, 2009; Shafie and Rennie, 2012). On the other hand, higher prices of organic produce are often a limitation to consumption (Lea and Worsley, 2005; Lockie et al., 2002).
Food safety and environmental impact are additional motivators for buying organic produce (Lockie et al., 2002; Ozguven, 2012; Shafie and Rennie, 2012; Siderer et al., 2005). Presence of pesticide residues and other chemicals on produce are the most common food safety concerns of organic and conventional consumers alike (Tung et al., 2012). Although concerns about the environment are not always the strongest driving force for organic consumption (Lockie et al., 2002; Siderer et al., 2005), commitment to environmental and social justice may become more important as consumption increases (Hjelmar, 2011; Seyfang, 2006).
The level of education is also an important predictor of organic consumption. A higher level of education is a characteristic of organic buyers in Germany (Bravo et al., 2013), Norway (Storstad and Bjørkhaug, 2003), and Thailand (Roitner-Schobesberger et al., 2008; Sangkumchaliang and Huang, 2012) among others (Shafie and Rennie, 2012). In Australia, people who received scientific education consumed more organic produce than those who received general education (Lockie et al., 2002), suggesting that the content of the education received also plays a role in the likelihood to buy organic produce.
Consumer perception of organic produce warrants further research, particularly in understudied demographic groups such as college-aged consumers. Most of the previously cited work examined purchase behavior and perceptions with respect to organic produce in noncollege-aged populations. However, evidence suggests that consumer perception of organic produce and purchase behavior differ among age groups (Bravo et al., 2013; Lockie et al., 2002; Sangkumchaliang and Huang, 2012); thus, previous studies may not accurately describe younger populations. It is essential to study younger consumers as a way to assess future consumer perceptions and anticipate challenges to be faced by the industry. Moreover, college-aged populations are ideal to gauge the effect of formal education because they are predisposed to learn and willing to participate in survey-type experiments. Finally, since higher education levels are a demographic descriptor of organic consumers (Bravo et al., 2013; Roitner-Schobesberger et al., 2008; Sangkumchaliang and Huang, 2012; Storstad and Bjørkhaug, 2003), college students represent the youngest segment of this consumer group. Thus, the hypotheses tested in this study were that students’ perception of organic produce 1) differs between buyers and nonbuyers of organic produce and 2) can be affected by formal education. A survey was designed to evaluate university students’ purchase behavior and perceptions with respect to organic produce. The extent to which formal education in this area can influence this perception was also tested.
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