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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.

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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.  

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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.

Future Food Demand

Will we be able to produce enough food to feed a more populated and likely richer world in 2050?  The answer to this question depends not just on what technologies we develop but also on what people in different parts of the world will want to eat in 2050.  A new paper by Christophe Gouel and Houssein Guimbard in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics takes data from consumption of 7 categories of food in over 100 different countries to explore how food demand changes with income and population, and then they use these estimates to project future food demand given estimates of income and population growth.  

First, they show that as incomes rise, demand for oils and fats and for animal-based food increases. 

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The following graph (from their appendix) shows the projected changes in global demand for different types of food on out to 2100.

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Here is a summary of their findings:

The main results of our projections to 2050 are that (a) food demand will increase by 47%, representing less than half of the growth experienced in the four decades before 2010; (b) this growth will come mainly from developing countries because in high-income countries, food demand is already at high per capita levels and population growth will be low; (c) growth in starchy staples will be small at 19%, supported by population increases because per capita consumption is predicted to decrease while demand for animal-based food will double, thereby increasing the global share of animal-based calories from 17% in 2010 to 23% in 2050; and (d) these projections present large uncertainties that are neglected in related studies: under alternative plausible futures for GDP and population, demand for animal-based calories increases between 74% and 114%.

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." 

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

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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.   

Pork: The Other Red Meat

Remember the long running campaign by the Pork Board?

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The campaign pitching pork as the other white meat made sense at a time when there was rising concern about fat content and red meat consumption and increased competition from chicken.  But, times have changed.

One of the changes has come about from scientific developments.  As it turns out, pork color is a good indicator of eating quality, and in blind taste tests, consumers prefer redder pork to whiter pork.  Do consumers know this?  Could a quality labeling system help coordinate the pork supply chain and better align production with consumers' eating expectations?

These were the questions that led to this paper just released by the journal Food Policy that I co-authored with Glynn Tonsor, Ted Schroeder, and Dermot Hayes with funding by the National Pork Board (a longer report of the results is here).

We surveyed about 2,000 consumers for the analysis reported in the Food Policy paper.  We were mainly interested in how consumers' choices between pork (and other meat) products varied with the color of the pork and whether and which kinds of labels were present.  Consumers were randomly assigned to a control (with no labels) or one of several treatment groups that utilized different labeling systems.  Below shows a particular choice question used in the various treatments.  

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We use the choices consumers made in these treatments to back out consumers' willingness-to-pay, but even more importantly, the probability a consumer buys any type of pork and the expected revenue from pork.  For the economists out there, I'll note that we also have some methodological innovation.  Rather than just looking at the probability of buying a type of pork at a given set of prices, we also invert the equations to look at the equilibrium price of pork at a given quantity of different types of pork (this is important because in the short run, pork producers can't easily produce a larger amount of higher quality pork).

So, what did we find?

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We find: 

In the absence of a cue in the “no labels” control, on average, participants do not differentiate among the three quality levels [or pork colors]. There is no significant difference in average WTP [willingness-to-pay] for the three different colored chops. This is consistent with industry interest in adding quality labels to facilitate further separation of pork quality by consumers. The introduction of a single Prime label for the highest quality chop in Treatment 1 results in a significant increase in the WTP for the chop that would carry the highest quality grade; however, there is a significant reduction in WTP for the lower quality chops that did not carry labels in this treatment.  ... When all pork products have grade labels, there is a significant premium for higher vs. lower quality pork and total pork sales rise, as do expected revenues. This can be seen in [the figure] as the mean WTP estimates for all pork qualities lie above those in the control condition with no labels.

We go on to show there is significant heterogeneity in consumer preferences.  We find that 28% to 40%, depending on the labeling condition, of consumers prefer white pork to red pork.  

From the conclusions: 

The choice experiment data analysis suggests that a USDA grade using Prime, Choice, and Select or Good, Better, Best labels would be most likely to increase expected pork revenue and the probability of purchasing pork. Additional important opportunities are present within this strategy. Foremost is that even with quality labels on the pork chops, a significant fraction of consumers preferred lower quality than Prime even when the three quality products were priced the same. Such consumers either do not understand the quality grade rankings of Prime, Choice, and Select (though results were similar for Best, Better, Good, which should be less prone to confusion), or this group of consumers were ignoring the quality grade labels and relying on product color to influence their choices. A possible response would be to segment consumers and to use the grading system only on those consumers who prefer red chops. Segmentation could be done by exploring preferences across states, institutions, income categories, ethnicity, and by export market. Despite the possibility for segmentation, however, we show, that if all qualities are present, only labeling the highest quality is likely to reduce total pork sales and revenue

As this piece in the Federal Register indicates, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service is seeking public comment on the usefulness of such a labeling system.  Maybe one day in the future you will see new pork quality grade labels in the grocery store.