Slow Growth Chicken - What do Consumers Think?

What do you think about slow-growth chickens?  If you're like most people I've asked, your answer is probably "what the heck is a slow growth chicken?"  

Food retailers, however, aren't wondering because they're being asked by animal advocacy organizations to make new commitments to only buy chicken from slower-growing birds (here is the request in the EU and here is the Humane Society of the United States on the issue).

First, what is slow growth chicken?  Here's from my new paper on the topic just released by the journal Poultry Science (references omitted):

Genetic improvements have allowed poultry producers to rear broilers faster and to heavier weights than was possible in previous decades , with the result being more affordable chicken for consumers. However, some research has suggested that rapid growth may result in broilers that suffer from leg damage and pain. These ideas have recently gained traction in popular media and have led to calls for older heritage breeds of chickens, or newer slower growing chickens that are argued to be associated with improved taste and higher broiler welfare. Some research suggests little to no independent relationship between days of growth and consumer sensory evaluations of chicken , and other research suggests that slow-growing breeds are deemed less tender and less juicy than conventional chicken breeds. Nonetheless, consumer preferences for chicken may be as much affected by perceptions and labels than by actual sensory characteristics.

The new paper reports on the results of some surveys I conducted late last year with about 2,000 U.S. chicken consumers for a project funded by the Food Marketing Institute, the Animal Agriculture Alliance, and the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research (a fuller, un-gated report of the results is here).  One of the main results is that most consumers don't know much about slow growth chickens, and as a result, positive or negative information can really sway people one way or the other.  

One group of people were given no extra information.  Another group of people received "pro" slow growth information from articles in NPR (as reported by Dan Charles) and the New York Times (as reported by Stephanie Strom), and yet another group of people received "anti" slow growth information from the National Chicken Council.

After receiving this information, consumers made a number of choices in a simulated retail environment showing packages of chicken breasts with different labels and prices.  These choices were used to back out consumers' willingness-to-pay for the slow-growth label (at present there is no widely adopted slow-growth label, so I created one myself for use in this study).  Here is the distribution of willingness-to-pay ($/lb) for slow growth and organic labels in the different information treatments.


Some of the most interesting results related to the extreme lack of knowledge people have about broiler production in general and slow-grown in particular.  For example, here are some results when they were asked what they thought a variety of different labels implied.  


The table shows the average beliefs about animal welfare, expense, healthfulness, safety, and taste of different labels. Without extra information, slow growth labels tended to be associated with disadvantageous beliefs. Without additional information, slow growth labels are associated with signaling the lowest safety, taste, and health of the labels considered.

Here's how I concluded the article:

Given the disadvantageous beliefs consumers hold about slow growth claims, a substantial marketing effort would likely be needed for the attribute to become a major determinant of consumer choice. Given consumers’ lack of knowledge about broiler production, simply informing consumers of already existing practices (e.g., cage free and no added hormones) could be a more cost-effective way of boosting chicken demand. That said, it is possible that the presence of hormone absence labels may exacerbate the misinformation problem by indirectly suggesting that there are some brands of chicken that use growth hormones. While organic labels are associated with positive beliefs and are valued relatively highly by consumers, organic production entails significantly higher costs in comparison to non-GMO or no antibiotic claims.

Perhaps the most significant factor explaining the increase in chicken consumption over the past several decades is price. Increases in production efficiencies have reduced chicken prices relative to the price of beef and pork. Perhaps not surprisingly then, this study also shows price to be a major determinant of choice for consumers. Nonetheless, there is a non-trivial minority of consumers who are relatively unconcerned about chicken prices, and these consumers are the target market for the label claims considered in this study.

Hierarchy, Disagreement, and Food Politics

Discussions about food are frequently divisive.  Low-carb or low-fat?  Organic or conventional?  Local or exotic?  Is our food system fantastic or broken?

Now, look out into the future to the year 2050.  Do you think our future food conversations will be more or less divisive than they are today?  As much as I hope the opposite, I suspect that we're likely to have more disagreement, not less, as we we go forward.  

Here's my theory.  You've no doubt heard of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, which characterizes stages of human growth.  The basic idea is that one has to satisfy more basic needs (e.g., food and shelter for survival) before moving on to worry about other "higher" needs, like social belonging.  Other's have posited a similar phenomenon in the domain of food.  For example, see Ellyn Satter in this 2007 academic article where she lays out a hierarchy of food needs.

Below, I've constructed my own version of Satter's food need hierarchy.  At the bottom, when people are highly income and resource constrained, people are asking questions like, "how do I get enough calories to eat?"  Once that question is answered, they can then worry about other things like: "Is this food safe?"  As a person (or country) develops and gains more income, they move from food being primarily consumed to survive to food consumption eventually serving as a form of self expression and actualization.


So, here's my twist on this.  When a community or country is largely at the bottom of the pyramid, there is likely to be broad agreement about "society's" objective in the food and farm realm: produce enough food to eat.  However, at the top of this pyramid, there is no reason to expect "society" to agree on the primary objective.  Satter called the top of this pyramid "instrumental food" and she said such foods were consumed to "achieve a desired physical, cognitive, or spiritual outcome."  If we're talking about food satisfying a particular view of what I think of myself (I eat what I am) or food satisfying a "spiritual outcome", why would we expect you and I to agree on what is "best"?  In this sense, we might expect food consumption to be more politicized.  

Satter also says of such food consumption, "These instrumental reasons may or may not be rational or supported by scientific inquiry."  No kidding!  That's precisely the world in which we now live.  A couple of years ago, for example, the Pew Foundation found that the widest gap between the general public and scientists was on the topic of the safety of GMOs.  Clearly, something other than peer-reviewed science is driving many people's food beliefs and consumption patterns.  

Another challenge is that psychology research shows that we have a tendency to think others are more like us than they actually are.  For those of us who have had the opportunity to "move up" the pyramid, we might forget the more foundational challenges many food consumers' face.  This might be one of the causes of food paternalism I've written about on a number occasions - the view that others should be eating more like me.  This quote from a psychology paper on "egocentric empathy gaps" is particularly apt:

A traditional Irish proverb, for example, states that ‘the full person does not understand the needs of the hungry.’ Most people in affluent societies may have little appreciation of the desperation of true starvation, and may consequently work less to alleviate it than if they understood how hunger really felt.”

It's not just that we might "work less" but that we might work to solve the problem in ways that suit our own particular desires rather than those we aim to help.  

So, is my little theory correct?  That greater affluence will lead to greater disagreement about which food and food systems are ideal?  As we often say in academic papers when we don't know the answer: "that question is left to future research."  

No, Farm Policy Doesn't Have Much to Do with Obesity

Yesterday, David Ludwig and Kenneth Rogoff, prominent pediatrician and economist respectively, published an article in the New York Times about obesity.  The following is a passage from the piece.  

Farm policies have made low-nutritional commodities exceptionally cheap, providing the food industry with enormous incentive to market processed foods comprised mainly of refined grains and added sugars. In contrast, vegetables, whole fruits, legumes, nuts and high-quality proteins are much more expensive and, in “food deserts,” often unavailable.

The authors have already taken a bit of a beating about this on Twitter from the agriculturally-literate-intelligentsia. Why?  Because these sentences give the incorrect impression that farm policy is a major contributor to obesity.  That's not saying farm policies aren't inefficient, only that they do not have the effects many people claim they do.

Why would farmers support policies that would make commodities "exceptionally cheap" and thus lower their profits?  Yes, there are some policies that likely increase production beyond what would happen in an un-distorted market, but there are other policies that reduce production.  Take corn, for example, which is the largest agricultural crop in the U.S. in terms of value of production.  The existence of subsided crop insurance subsidies and commodity programs might increase the tendency to produce more than would otherwise be the case, but ethanol policies from the EPA re-direct much of that production to fuel rather than food. Moreover, there are countervailing policies such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which remove land from production.  In addition, sugar policies push the price of sugar up, not down.  

The authors also point to processed food as another big evil, but in so doing they (correctly) undercut the argument that farm policy is a major culprit.  How so?  Well, for every $1 we spend on food, only about $0.15 results because of the cost of the farm product.  The other 85% of the cost is from transportation, processing, packaging, marketing, retailing, etc.  As a result, changes in farm commodity prices have relatively small impacts on retail prices.  

Fruits and vegetables are indeed more expensive than many commodity crops, but that's because of biology not policy (see more on that here and here).  Here's what I wrote in one of those posts:

why do we grow so much corn, soy, and wheat in the U.S.? A primary answer is that these plants are incredibly efficient at converting solar energy and soil nutrients into calories (they’re the best, really the best). Moreover, these calories are packaged in a form (seeds) that are highly storeable and easily transportable - allowing the calories to be relatively easily transported to different times and to different geographic locations. Contrast these crops with directly-human-edible fruits/vegetables like kale, broccoli, or tomatoes. These plants are poor converters of solar energy to plant-stored energy (i.e., they’re not very calorie dense), and they are not easily storeable or transportable without processing (mainly canning or freezing), which requires energy.

If you don't believe me, there is a long literature by agricultural economists on this subject.  See this book by Julian Alston and Abby Okrent or these papers in American Journal of Agricultural Economics or Journal of Health Economics, the later of which was co-authored with Brad Rickard.  Other papers take entirely different approaches but arrive at the same conclusion.  See this paper in Food Policy by Corey Miller and Keith Coble or this one by Alston, Sumner an Vosti, also in Food Policy.

As for the efficacy of the other policies proposed by Ludwig and Rogoff, I'm skeptical of their efficacy in truly affecting obesity.  See this paper I recently published in Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy or my 2013 book, The Food Police.

USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to Move

For those of you that aren't academic agricultural economists or statisticians, this may seem a bit "inside baseball", but for those of you that are, this is a big deal.  I don't know for sure, but I suspect the federal government is the largest employer of PhD-level agricultural economists, and many (most?) of those economists are in the Economic Research Service (ERS).  Employees of the ERS and NIFA unexpectedly received emails today indicating a re-organization of their agencies and a re-location.  

Here is a broader release that was sent out about an hour ago.  I'll simply post it here without editorializing.  For ease of reading, the following isn't in block quotes but it is a copy-paste from an email.

USDA to Realign ERS with Chief Economist, Relocate ERS & NIFA Outside DC

(Washington, DC – August 9, 2018) – U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue today announced further reorganization of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), intended to improve customer service, strengthen offices and programs, and save taxpayer dollars.  The Economic Research Service (ERS), currently under USDA’s Research, Education, and Economics mission area, will realign once again with the Office of the Chief Economist (OCE) under the Office of the Secretary.  Additionally, most employees of ERS and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) will be relocated outside of the National Capital Region.  The movement of the employees outside of Washington, DC is expected to be completed by the end of 2019.

“It’s been our goal to make USDA the most effective, efficient, and customer-focused department in the entire federal government,” Perdue said.  “In our Administration, we have looked critically at the way we do business, with the ultimate goal of ensuring the best service possible for our customers, and for the taxpayers of the United States.  In some cases, this has meant realigning some of our offices and functions, or even relocating them, in order to make more logical sense or provide more streamlined and efficient services.”

Realigning ERS with OCE

Moving ERS back together with OCE under the Office of the Secretary simply makes sense because the two have similar missions.  ERS studies and anticipates trends and emerging issues, while OCE advises the Secretary and Congress on the economic implications of policies and programs.  These two agencies were aligned once before, and bringing them back together will enhance the effectiveness of economic analysis at USDA.

Relocating ERS and NIFA outside National Capital Region

New locations have yet to be determined, and it is possible that ERS and NIFA may be co-located when their new homes are found.  USDA is undertaking the relocations for three main reasons:

  1. To improve USDA’s ability to attract and retain highly qualified staff with training and interests in agriculture, many of whom come from land-grant universities.  USDA has experienced significant turnover in these positions, and it has been difficult to recruit employees to the Washington, DC area, particularly given the high cost of living and long commutes.
  2. To place these important USDA resources closer to many of stakeholders, most of whom live and work far from the Washington, DC area. 
  3. To benefit the American taxpayers.  There will be significant savings on employment costs and rent, which will allow more employees to be retained in the long run, even in the face of tightening budgets. 

No ERS or NIFA employees will be involuntarily separated. Every employee who wants to continue working will have an opportunity to do so, although that will mean moving to a new location for most.  Employees will be offered relocation assistance and will receive the same base pay as before, and the locality pay for the new location.  For those who are interested, USDA is seeking approval from the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget for both Voluntary Early Retirement Authority and Voluntary Separation Incentive Payments.

“None of this reflects on the jobs being done by our ERS or NIFA employees, and in fact, I frequently tell my Cabinet colleagues that USDA has the best workforce in the federal government,” Perdue said.  “These changes are more steps down the path to better service to our customers, and will help us fulfill our informal motto to ‘Do right and feed everyone.’”

Perdue previously announced other significant changes at USDA.  In May 2017, USDA created the first-ever Undersecretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs and reconstituted and renamed the new Farm Production and Conservation mission area, among other realignments.  In addition, in September 2017, Perdue realigned a number of offices to improve customer service and maximize efficiency.  Those actions involved innovation, consolidation, and the rearrangement of certain offices into more logical organizational reporting structures. 


The Most Popular Fruits and Vegetables

I recently had some questions about which fruits and vegetables are most commonly consumed. The USDA Economic Research Service reports data on per-capita availability of different foods.  This is not a direct measure of consumption per se, but it is an indirect extrapolation of what was left in the U.S. for consumption after accounting for exports and storage.  Their latest update was for the year 2015.

Here is per-capita "consumption" of fresh fruit.


And, per-capita "consumption" of fresh vegetables is below.


Do any of these findings surprise you?  One of the results that was a little surprising to me is that melons were the 2nd most commonly consumed fresh fruit. Why are melons so commonly consumed?  There are likely a variety of reasons, but I suspect price is one factor.

Here is 2016 retail data from USDA Economic Research Service for fresh fruit.  I've shown prices in $/lb and $/cup equivalent ("a 1-cup equivalent equals the weight of enough edible food to fill a measuring cup") for some of the most commonly fresh fruits.


Why do people eat a lot of fresh melons?  Apparently one reasons is that they're relatively affordable.