Defining Meat

Meat and livestock producers are taking notice of the the rising interest in lab-based, cultured, and plant-based "meat."  Some of the larger meat packers and producers have chosen to invest in these new start-ups.  Other producers, facing the competitive threat, are turning to the legal system.  The U.S. Cattlemen's Association (not to be confused with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association) has officially petitioned the USDA to:

limit the definition of beef to product from cattle born, raised, and harvested in the traditional manner. Specifically, [the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service] should require that any product labeled as “beef” come from cattle that have been born, raised, and harvested in the traditional manner, rather than coming from alternative sources such as a synthetic product from plant, insects, or other non-animal components and any product grown in labs from animal cells.

The state of Missouri already passed a similar law (although it has yet to be signed by the governor).

The labeling requests are in keeping with a long list of "standards of identity" whereby the government defines how certain words can be used on food labels and in marketing.  The stated purpose of the laws are to protect consumers and to prevent consumers from being misled.  In some cases cases, I suspect they standards have done just that.  However, in other cases, the rules can be used by incumbent firms to ward off competition from potentially innovative entrants.  In one particularly egregious example, a small creamery marketing "natural milk" didn't want to add vitamin A to its milk.  However, because the standard of identity say that skim milk contains vitamin A, a judge ruled they must label their milk "imitation skim milk" even though they added literally nothing to the milk (the ruling was later overturned).  Another recent example is when Hampton Creek was told they couldn't label their product mayonnaise because it didn't contain eggs.  I wrote about that case here, and concluded by saying:

Ultimately, I think there are good arguments on both sides of this case, and it isn’t obvious what would be the consequences of the unraveling of these sorts of “food purity” laws. Sometimes it’s hard to know when consumer protection becomes protectionism.

In the case of beef, I am a bit skeptical that consumers will be mislead by the start-up meat alternatives.  Why?  These aren't generic products being sold by companies trying to water down or adulterate a product with cheaper inputs.  These are branded products created by firms whose whole marketing strategy is to tell people their product is NOT beef.  Here's a picture I took with my cellphone at a restaurant selling the Impossible Burger, where plain as day its says "Meat from Plants." 


Here is an image of package of Beyond Meat.  Again, plain as day, it says "Plant-Based Burger."


In neither of the cases above, do the companies claim to be "beef" in the ads or packaging.  So, in a lot of ways, I suspect the calls for standards of identity may be much to do about nothing. 

Even without the identity standards, it is not as if consumers are totally unprotected.  If they are, in fact, misled, the legal system offers possible remedy. As witnessed by the numerous lawsuits over the use of the word "natural," I suspect there are plenty of lawyers out there willing to help a consumer who can show they've experienced damages.   

Impacts of health information on perceived taste and affordability

The journal Food Quality and Preference just released a new paper I co-authored with Jisung Jo, a former student who now works at the Korea Maritime Institute.

Here is the motivation for the work:

One of the key mechanisms policy makers have utilized to encourage healthier eating is the provision of information via nutritional labels. However, research has shown that the provision of health information does not necessarily increase consumption of healthy foods ... A possible reason for the largely ineffectual impact of nutritional labeling might be because health information not only updates consumers’ health perceptions but also affects other perceptions, such as taste and affordability, which are the primary drivers of consumer purchase behavior

In other words, if you see a new labeling indicating a food is healthier than you previously thought, do you now think it will be less tasty?  Or more expensive?  

To explore this issue, we surveyed consumers in three different countries (US, China, and Korea).  We showed consumers a picture of a food item and asked them to rate the item, on simple scales, in terms of perceived taste, health, affordability, and purchase intention.  We did this for 60 diverse food items. Then, the ratings of all 60 foods was repeated after the subjects had received information about each food item’s healthiness, which was conveyed via a "traffic light" labeling system (green=healthy, yellow=medium healthiness, red=unhealthy).   Here's an example of one of the questions asked before and after the information:


Unsurprisingly, the provision of "green" labels tended to increased perceived healthiness and the provision of "red" labels tended to reduce perceived healthiness.  Of more interest is how these labels affected perceptions of taste, affordability, and ultimately purchase intentions.  

Unexpectedly, we found that providing information that a food was healthier than people previously thought tended to increase perceived taste.  People also tended to think items that are less healthy than previously thought will ultimately be less expensive.

We created the following graph to look at how projected changes in purchase intentions (after provision of health information) would change if one ignores the fact that health information also affects perceived taste and affordability.

Across all scenarios and in all three countries, we find that negative health information has the biggest effects on purchase intention changes. Intriguingly, the average purchase intention in scenario B is larger than that in scenario A. The values for scenario D are the same as the actual average of purchase intention (since they are just the model evaluated at the mean effect changes of all variables included in the model). Comparing the purchase intention changes as one moves from scenario A to D shows the effect of ignoring integrated health-taste-affordability perceptions.

Overall, this research underscores the need to understand how labels which convey health information might also alter other perceptions related to taste and affordability.

Are Organic and Non-GMO Labels Substitutes or Complements?

For the first time today, I saw the following label on a packaged food.


In a way, the label seems a little odd.  An organic seal on a product should already convey to consumers that the ingredients came from a process that excluded GMOs.  However, the very presence of the label suggests many consumers may not be aware of this fact.  

I have a paper with Brandon McFadden forthcoming in journal Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy (sorry, I don't yet have a link to the paper on the AEPP's website; I'll pass it along when I get the link and discuss the whole paper in more detail).  In the paper we delve into this issue and others.  Here's part of the motivation.  

It appears that organic organizations are concerned that consumers perceive non-GM and organic labels to be substitutes. Although many organic food companies supported the general idea of mandatory labeling, now that the policy has passed, organic producers have expressed concern that non-GM verification may be perceived as a substitute for the more expensive and encompassing organic certification. For examples, California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) initiated a campaign “Organic is Non-GMO and More” to highlight the differences in the two claims, and the Organic Trade Association (OTA) emphasizes, “Organic = Non-GMO…and so much more!!” Despite these concerns, little is known about the extent to which the two most common non-GM labels, USDA Organic and Non-GMO Project, are demand substitutes or complements. Whether the labels are demand substitutes or complements can be determined, in our context, by investigating whether WTP [willingness-to-pay] is supra- or sub-additive when the labels are combined. If the premium for displaying both labels is less than the sum of individual premiums for each label, then the two labels must be providing some of the same underlying characteristics of value to the consumer and implies the two labels are substitutes. By contrast, if the premium for displaying both labels is greater than the sum of individual premiums, then the two labels are complements and provide more value when provided together.

We ultimately find that products with the organic seal and products with the non-GMO verified seal are indeed demand substitutes.  Here's one paragraph related to those results:

For apples, the results revealed large and statistically significant substitution effects for Non-GMO and USDA Organic labels. In fact, results indicated that the two are almost perfect substitutes as WTP [willingness-to-pay] premiums for apples with both Non-GMO and USDA Organic labels roughly the same as WTP premiums for apples that display only one label. This result is made obvious by the third column of results. The WTP premium for apples with the Non-GMO label only (vs text label) is $0.446, the WTP premium for apples with the organic label only (vs text label) was $0.474, and the WTP premium for apples with both Non-GMO and USDA Organic labels was $0.446+$0.447-$0.461=$0.432, which is actually lower than when either label is present in isolation.

Because it is more costly to be organic than non-GMO (since the latter is a subset of the former), it is easy to see why many food companies would want to add the additional label that "Organic is non-GMO and more".

Labeling Food Processes: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

That's the title of an interesting new article in the journal Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy by Kent Messer, Marco Costanigro, and Harry Kaiser.  Here's the abstract:

Consumers are increasingly exposed to labels communicating specific processing aspects of food production, and recent state and federal legislation in the United States has called for making some of these labels mandatory. This article reviews the literature in this area and identifies the positive and negative aspects of labeling food processes. The good parts are that, under appropriate third-party or governmental oversight, process labels can effectively bridge the informational gap between producers and consumers, satisfy consumer demand for broader and more stringent quality assurance criteria, and ultimately create value for both consumers and producers. Despite the appeal of the “Consumer Right to Know” slogan, process labeling also can have serious unintentional consequences. The bad parts are that consumers can misinterpret these labels and thus misalign their personal preferences and their actual food purchases. The ugly parts are that these labels can stigmatize food produced with conventional processes even when there is no scientific evidence that they cause harm, or even that it is compositionally any different. Based on this review of the literature, we provide three policy recommendations: (i) mandatory labeling of food processes should occur only in situations in which the product has been scientifically demonstrated to harm human health; (ii) governments should not impose bans on process labels because this approach goes against the general desire of consumers to know about and have control over the food they are eating, and it can undermine consumer trust of the agricultural sector; and (iii) a prudent policy approach is to encourage voluntary process labeling, perhaps using smart phone technology similar to that proposed in 2016 federal legislation related to foods containing ingredients that were genetically engineered.

How Votes on GMO Labeling Change Concern for GMOs

At the annual meetings of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association last week in Chicago, I saw an interesting presentation by Jane Kolodinsky from the University of Vermont.  She utilized some survey data collected in Vermont before and after mandatory labels on GMOs appeared on products in that state to determine whether consumers seeing GMO labels on the shelf led to greater or lower support for GMOs as measured by her surveys.  

I'm not sure if she's ready to make those results public yet, so I won't discuss her findings here (I will note I'm now working with her now to combine some of my survey data with hers to see whether the findings hold up in a larger sample).

Nonetheless, her presentation led me think about some of the survey data I collected over the years as a part of the Food Demand Survey (FooDS) project.  While I don't have enough data from consumers in Vermont to ask the same question Jane did, I do have quite a bit of data from the larger states of Oregon and Colorado, which held public votes on mandatory labeling for GMOs back in December 2014.  

In particular, I can ask the question: did the publicity surrounding the vote initiative on mandatory GMO labeling cause people to become more or less concerned about GMOs in general?

We have some strong anecdotal evidence to suggest that support for GMO labeling fell pretty dramatically in the months leading up to the vote.  For example, here are the results from several polls in California (including one data point my research with Brandon McFadden generated) on support/opposition to mandatory GMO labeling.  The figure below shows support for the policy was high but fell precipitously as the election campaigning began, and as we all know by now, the policy ultimately failed to garner majority support in California.

There is a similar pattern of support for mandatory GMO labeling in other states where the voter initiatives were held.  However, just because public support for a mandatory labeling policy fell as a result of campaign ads, this doesn't necessarily mean people thought GMOs were safer or more acceptable per se.  Indeed, many of the negative campaign ads focused on possible "paydays for lawyers" or inconsistencies in the ways the laws would be implemented, rather than focusing on the underlying technology itself.  

The Food Demand Survey has been conducted nationwide and monthly since May of 2013.  In November of 2014, two states - Colorado and Oregon - held widely publicized votes on mandatory GMO labeling.  These data can be used to calculate a difference-in-difference estimate of the effect of mandatory GMO labeling vote on awareness of GMOs in the news and concern about GMOs as a food safety risk.

The survey asks all respondents, every month, two questions of relevance here.  First, “Overall, how much have you heard or read about each of the following topics in the past two weeks” with response categories: 1=nothing; 2=a little; 3=a moderate amount; 4=quite a bit; 5=a great deal.  Second, we also ask, “How concerned are you that the following pose a health hazard in the food that you eat in the next two weeks” with response categories: 1=very unconcerned; 2= somewhat unconcerned; 3=neither concerned nor unconcerned; 4=somewhat concerned; 5=very concerned.  One of the 16 issues we ask about is "genetically modified food."

These data allow us to calculate a so-called difference-in-difference estimate.  That is - were people in CA and OR more concerned about GMOs than people in the rest of the country (this is the first difference) and how did this gap change during and after all the publicity surrounding the vote (this is the second and third difference)?  The "treated" group are the people in CA and OR while the "control" group consists of people in all other US states.

To analyze these question, I split the data into three time periods - "before" the vote (the months prior to September 2014), during the vote (Sep, Oct, Nov, Dec of 2014 and Jan of 2015) and after the vote (all the months after January 2015).  There were 485 "treated" people in CO and OR before the vote, 172 in these locations during, and 908 in these locations after (out of a total sample size of almost 49,000). 

In terms of awareness, here's what I found. 

Compared to people other parts of the U.S., people in CO and OR indeed reported hearing more about GMOs in the news during the ballot initiative vote than they did before and after (the increase in news awareness during the months surround the vote was statistically significant at the 0.01 level).

But, here's the key question.  Did the vote increase or decrease concern about GMOs as a food safety risk?  Apparently there was no effect.  The graph below shows, as compared to people in other states where there were no votes, there was actually a small increase in concern for GMOs in CO and OR in the months during the vote (however, the increase was not statistically significant, p=0.36), which then fell back down to pre-vote levels after the vote.  

So, despite evidence that the vote initiative on mandatory labeling led to an increase in awareness of GMOs in the news, it did not substantively affect concern about GMOs one way or the other.