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The Future of Meat

Several weeks ago, I was interviewed by Stephen Dubner for Freakonomics radio and their associated podcast. The topic was the future of meat, and they just released the episode today. It’s not uncommon to do an hour long interview only to have the producers pull out a half minute clip to include in the show, so I was surprised to see how much of our interview they used. The other voice that gets a lot of air time is Pat Brown, a Stanford biomedical researcher who is the CEO and Founder of Impossible Foods - a company aiming to replace meat by using genetically engineered yeast to produce animal-like proteins via a fermentation process (I’ve reviewed the Impossible burger in a previous post). The transcript of the Freakonomics show is here. Or, download the episode from your favorite streaming service.

Consumer perceptions of "healthy" claims

Last week I wrote about a study I conducted on how consumers think about the word “natural.” As a part of the same project, I also delved into consumer’s perceptions of the word “healthy.”

“Healthy”, at least as a food package claim, has been defined by the FDA since 1993 by reference to total fat content, with changes made in 2016 to discriminate between different types of fat. Recently, however, the FDA has begun a process to potentially re-define the term, suggesting the need for more information on consumer’s current perceptions of the term and labeling claim.

One of the first questions on this topic I asked my sample of over 1,200 nationally representative food consumers was an open-ended question: “What does it mean to you for a food to be called ‘healthy’?” A word cloud constructed from the responses is below (the full report is available here). Words like good, fat, nutrition/nutrient/nutritional, natural, sugar, calorie, and organic were most commonly mentioned. Responses provided some support for current FDA definition as “fat” is one of the most commonly mentioned words (mentioned by 10.4% of respondents), although nearly as many (6.6%) mentioned sugar. More than a quarter of respondents provided imprecise or tautological-like definitions like “good ingredients,” “good for you,” or “healthy ingredients.”

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In addition to the open-ended question on the meaning of “healthy”, respondents were provided with a list of 13 factors that consumers might use to judge whether a food is healthy. The figure below shows that about a quarter of respondents indicated sugar content and use of hormones or antibiotics, 19.2% pointed to fat content, and 18.4% pointed to pesticide residues. The top four answers included two nutrients (sugar and fat) and two food production processes/ingredients (hormones and pesticides), suggesting consumers consider healthiness to be more than just defined by nutrient content. However, it should be noted that hormones and pesticides were infrequently mentioned (both mentioned by less than half a percent of respondents) when unaided.

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To further explore how consumers define and think about healthiness, a couple binary choice questions were posed. Consumers were about evenly split on whether a food can be deemed healthy based solely on the foods’ nutritional content (52.1% believing as such) or whether there were other factors that affect whether a food is healthy (47.9% believing as such). Consumers were also evenly split on whether an individual food can be considered healthy (believed by 47.9%) or whether this healthiness is instead a characteristic of one’s overall diet and the combination of foods consumed (believed by 52.1%). These responses suggests difficulty in creating a definition of “healthy” on food packages that is broadly acceptable to consumers. Answers to these two questions are not determinative of each other, but rather there are four distinct consumer segments with regard to healthy food conceptions. The figure below indicating the percent of respondents who answered these two questions in the four possible manners.

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Respondents were also provided a list of 15 foods in random order and were asked to indicate whether each was healthy, unhealthy, or neither healthy nor unhealthy. For each item, a healthiness score was created by subtracting the percent of respondents who considered a process unhealthy from the percent of respondents who considered a process healthy. The figure below shows the results.

Almost all respondents (96.2%) considered fresh vegetables to be healthy, and almost none (0.9%) considered them unhealthy, yielding a net healthy score of 96.2-0.9=95.3% for fresh vegetables. Fresh fruit, fish, eggs, and chicken were likewise broadly considered healthier than not. Frozen vegetables/fruit were considered less healthy than fresh, and canned were considered less healthy than frozen, although even canned was considered, on net, more healthy than unhealthy. Only three of the 15 items listed were considered by more respondents to be unhealthy than healthy: vegetable oil, bakery and cereal items, and particularly candy.

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To explore how consumers conceptualized the healthiness of different foods, the questions used to create the figure above were further analyzed using factor analysis. The first factor, shown on the vertical axis of the following figure shows all animal products with high values and other non-animal products with lower values, suggesting consumers use animal origin as a primary factor in judging whether a food is healthy. Another factor illustrated on the vertical axis, indicates freshness or degree of processing is another dimension to healthiness evaluations. These results indicate that healthiness is not a single unifying construct, but rather consumers evaluate healthiness along a number of different dimensions or factors. A food, such as beef or fish, can be seen as scoring high in some dimensions of healthy but low in another.

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Respondents were asked to indicate their extent of agreement or disagreement with eight statements. The highest levels of agreement were with the statement, “Individual needs determine whether various foods are healthy for an individual.” Only 7.8% of respondents disagreed with this statement, whereas more than 70% agreed with it. There were also strong beliefs that healthy food is safe to eat and natural. There was only moderate agreement that healthier food is tastier. About 44% of respondents neither agreed nor disagreed with this statement. There was slightly more disagreement than agreement that healthy food is more convenient to eat. A majority of consumers (58%) disagreed that healthy is more affordable.

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There is a lot more in the full report.

The Superbowl and Chicken Wing Demand

With the Superbowl coming up this Sunday, I thought I’d take a quick look at whether this annual event has much effect on the market for a food it has come to be closely associated with: chicken wings.

I turned to USDA data compiled by the Livestock Marketing Information Center, which reports weekly prices on whole wings going back to 1992. Here is the price trend in nominal terms. There has been a strong upward trend in chicken wing prices over this time period, but of course some of that is due to inflation. However, even after adjusting for inflation, wings were about $0.90/lb in the early 1990s ($0.50/lb in nominal terms), and they averaged about $1.50/lb in 2018; during the latter part of 2018, prices were above $2.00/lb.

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In the graph above, it’s hard to make out when, exactly, the Superbowl occurred. Looking at the history of the event over this time period, the Superbowl occurred in late January or early February every year since 1992. With that knowledge, I added orange lines to the graph to indicate the periods surrounding the Superbowl.

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It sure looks like there is a price spike right around the time of the Superbowl each year, with a price decline immediately following. Indeed, if I look at the most recent decade, prices rise about 7% from early January to the Superbowl period (late January, early February), and then fall about 5% going in to mid- to late-February.

The price spikes are indicative of increasing demand over this time period. This is also consistent with data we collected in the monthly Food Demand Survey, were we often found a spike in consumer willingness-to-pay around the event.

Too bad I don’t have data on napkins and antacids …

P.S. One might wonder why this price phenomenon is different than that for turkeys. As I discussed back in November, turkey prices tend to fall around Thanksgiving when demand is peaking, perhaps due to strategic pricing behavior by retailers or from producers planning ahead and increasing supply around this time. A key difference with turkeys and wings, is that one is a whole and the other is a part. If there isn’t an overall demand increase for chicken around the Superbowl, then the wings will be in relatively short supply. It might make sense for a turkey producer to grown a whole bird in anticipation of the holidays, but it’s not possible for a producer to only grown wings in anticipation of the Superbowl.

What is "Natural"?

I recently completed a survey of over 1,200 U.S. consumers to find out exactly what they think “natural” means when evaluating different foods. The full report is available here and topline results for all questions asked are here (the survey also covered consumers’ perceptions of “healthy” claims, which I’ll blog on later).

Here is the motivation for the study:

While food companies are allowed to use a “natural” label or claim, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has refrained from defining the term. One consequence has been a large number of lawsuits in recent years in which plaintiffs claim to suffer harm from being misled about food product contents or ingredients when accompanied with a natural label (Creswell, 2018). In 2015, the FDA requested public comment on the use of the term natural in food labeling, signaling a potential move to define the term. Such events suggest the need for more information about how food consumers perceive and define the term natural.

One of the initial queries was an open-ended question which asked, “What does it mean to you for a food to be called ‘natural’?” Here is a word cloud constructed from the responses.

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Words like artificial, additive, chemical, and organic were most commonly mentioned. More than 10% of respondents specifically mentioned the word artificial. A non-trivial share of respondents suggested the word was meaningless, marketing hype, or that they did not know what the word meant.

Respondents were also provided a list of possible words/definitions and asked which best fit their definition of natural. No preservatives and no antibiotics/hormones topped the list.

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Despite associating preservatives with lack of naturalness, when asked about specific preservatives, responses are more nuanced. Preservation by canning and with sugar/salt/vinegar were perceived by more people as natural than not-natural, whereas preservation with benzoates/nitrites/sulphites was not.

To hone in on which processes/foods people consider natural vs. not natural, they were shown the following figure. Respondents were asked “Which of the following foods or processes do you consider to be natural? (click up to 5 items on the image that you believe are natural).” The question was repeated except “natural” was replaced with “NOT natural.”

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You can find some colorful heat-maps of the resulting clicks in the full report. Here, I’ll just note that about half of respondents (47.1%) clicked on the image of the raw commodities as being natural. The next most commonly clicked areas, chosen by between 20% and 30% of respondents, was grits/oatmeal, wash/clean, and wash/grind/slice. Even after showing the processes involved, 19.8% clicked vegetable oil as natural and 13.3% clicked flour as natural. By contrast, “Bleach” was most most frequently clicked (by 33.8% of respondents) as not natural, followed by “Crystalize”, and then alcohol, syrup, and sugar.

A curious result revealed is that, in many case, final foods are often considered more natural than the processes which make them. For example, more people clicked alcohol as natural than clicked fermentation as natural. Vegetable oil was perceived as more natural than pressing or bleaching, both processes which are used to create this final product. Similarly, sugar is perceived as more natural than crystallization, but of course, the latter is necessary to produce the former. These findings suggest that it is possible for a final product to be considered natural even if a process used to make the product is not.

I also asked questions about crop production processes and perceptions of naturalness.

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About 80% more respondents said organically grown crops were natural as said such crops were not natural. Crops grown indoors and that are hydroponically grown were, on net, seen as more natural than not. All other crop production practices were rated as not natural by more respondents than were rated as natural. Thus, the results suggest consumers are skeptical of the naturalness of most modern crop production practices. Curiously, this is true for use of hybrid seeds. Crops produced with biotechnology were much more likely to be considered not natural than natural. Consumers perceived organic as natural, but not the pesticides used in organic agriculture or the methods (i.e., mutagenesis) used to create many organic seeds. Again, these findings suggest that it is possible for a final product to be considered natural even if a process used to make the product is not; in this case, the finding is likely to result from a lack of knowledge about organic production practices.

On the topic of misperceptions, just because a federal definition of natural exists does not mean consumers know or understand the definition. The USDA currently defines “natural” for meat products, and it is primarily defined as “minimally processed.” However, only about a quarter of respondents in this survey (26.6%) correctly picked this definition when asked how the USDA defines the term. More than 30% of respondents incorrectly believed the USDA definition of natural implies “no hormones” and 23.8% thought a natural label implies “no antibiotics.” These data suggest more than half of respondents are misled by the USDA definition of natural, a result supported by the other recent academic research.

There is a lot more in the detailed report, including more information on question wording and methods of analysis. For example, analysis of correlations between responses (via factor analysis), suggests “natural” is not a single monolithic construct in consumer’s minds, but rather is multidimensional. A food or process can be considered natural on one dimension but not another, as shown in the following figure.

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Thanks to the Corn Refiners Association, who funded this survey. They gave me free reign to ask the questions and analyze the data as I wanted. You can see their interpretation of the results and their policy recommendations here.


The Coming Meat Wars

By now, I suspect many of you have seen the report by the EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems, which was released on January 16th.

Among other things, the report recommends a dramatic reduction in consumption of meat and animal products. Here is their recommended plate.

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Much has been made on Twitter and other places about the size of the small meat and animal product proportions suggested (e.g., 1/4 egg per day), and the fact that more added sugar is suggested than most meat products.

Rather, than going line-by-line through the report, I think it’s useful to take a step back and see this report as another front in what seems to be an escalating war on meat and animal food products (recall the debate surrounding the scientific advisory report on dietary guidelines back in 2015? Here were my thoughts then). What I thought I’d do in response is to provide some broader thoughts about some of the debates that have arisen about meat consumption. My purpose isn’t to defend meat and livestock industries, but to help explain the consumption patterns we see, add some important context and nuance to these discussions, and help ensure consumer welfare isn’t unduly harmed. (Full disclosure: over the years, I’ve done various consulting projects for meat and livestock groups such as the Cattlemen’s Beef Board, the Pork Board, and the North American Meat Institute. All of this work was on specific projects or data analysis related to labels or demand projections, and none of these groups support writing such as this, but I mention it here for sake of transparency).

Here are my thoughts.

  • These debates can be contentious because meat, dairy, and egg production is big business and critically important to the economic health of the agricultural sector. For example, these USDA data show in 2017 in the U.S. the value of cattle/calves was about $67 billion, poultry and eggs about $43 billion, diary about $38 billion, and hogs about $21 billion, for a total of $176 billion at the farm gate. Contrast this with the value of corn ($46.6 billion), vegetables and melons ($19.7 billion), fruits and nuts ($31 billion), or wheat ($8.7 billion). In many ways, livestock/poultry can be see as “value added” production because these animal products rely on corn, soy, hay, and grass

  • Given the farm-level statistics, it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that consumers spend a lot on meat, dairy, and eggs. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Consumer Expenditure Survey suggest that in 2017 consumers spend about $181 billion on animal products eaten at home. This doesn’t count food away from home, which is 43.5% of food spending according to these data (spending on food away from home isn’t segregated into food types as is food at home). Of total spending on food at home, 32% goes toward meat, dairy, and eggs.

  • If anything, data suggest demand for meat (i.e., the amount consumers are willing to pay for a given quantity of meat) has been steady or rising over the past decade. For example, see these demand indices created by Glynn Tonsor. His data also shows there has been a steady increase in demand for poultry for the past several decades. At the same time, my FooDS data suggests a slight increase in the share of people who report being vegetarian or vegan over the past five years - going from around 4% in 2013 to around 6% in 2018. So, aggregate demand for animal products is up, although there seems to be increasing polarization on both ends of spectrum. We also find that meat consumption is increasingly related to political ideology, with conservatives having higher beef demand than liberals.

  • There are important demographic differences in meat consumption, but the results highly depend on which meat cuts we are talking about. For example lower income households have higher demand for ground beef and lower demand for steak than higher income households. Broadly speaking, meat consumption is a “normal good”, which means that consumption increase as incomes rise. This is particularly true in developing countries. One of the first things people in developing countries add to their diet when they get a little more money in their pockets is animal protein.

  • Given the high levels of aggregate meat consumption indicated above, the evidence suggests strong consumer preferences for meat and animal-based products. Taxes on such products will harm consumer welfare, and will be costly if, for no other reason, because of the size of the industry. Stated differently, consumers highly valuing having animal protein in their diets. This study shows the average U.S. consumer places a higher value on having meat in his or her diet than having any other food group.

  • Calls for taxes are often predicated on the notion that there are externalities from meat, egg, and dairy production that need to be internalized (otherwise, this would amount to little more than “nannying” or paternalism). The externalities on the health care front presumably come from the fact that we have Medicare and Medicaid, which socialize health care costs. As I’ve written about on many occasions (e.g., see this paper), these “externalities” do NOT create economic inefficiencies because they simply represent transfers from healthy to the sick. Any inefficiencies that arise occur because of moral hazard (i.e., people eating unhealthy because they think the government/taxpayers will foot the bill), and the solution to this insurance problem is typically to require deductibles or risk-adjusted insurance pricing, which nobody seems to be proposing as a solution. As for environmental externalities, the key is to ensure prices for inputs such as water or energy, or outputs such as carbon or methane, reflect external costs. In this sense it isn’t the cow or chicken that is the “sin” but the under-priced water or carbon. Here the goal is to adopt broad policies that apply to all sectors (ag and non-ag) and that encourage and allow for innovation to reduce impacts.

  • On climate impacts of animal agriculture, it is important not to confuse global figures of climate impacts with U.S. figures, which tend to be much lower (e.g., see my piece in the WSJ a few years ago on this topic). Why would climate impacts be lower in the U.S.? Because we tend to be more intensified and productive than elsewhere in the world. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but more intensive livestock operations (because of the massive productivity gains) can significantly reduce environmental impacts when measured on a per unit of output (e.g., pound of meat or egg) basis.

  • As for carbon impacts, the big culprit here is beef and to a lesser extent (due to the smaller cattle numbers), dairy. Why? Because cattle are ruminants. The great benefit of ruminants is that they can take foodstuffs inedible to humans (e.g., grass, hay, cottonseed) and convert them into products we like to eat (e.g., cheese, steak) (see further discussion on this here). The downside is that ruminants create methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas (GHG). The good news is that the GHG emissions from beef production have significantly fallen over time because of dramatic productivity gains (see this paper), but they’re not zero. It’s also important to note that not all greenhouse gasses are created equal, and while methane is a potent greenhouse gas, my understanding is that the impacts from livestock are less persistent in the atmosphere than are other types of greenhouse has emissions. While we can cut GHG emissions by eating less beef, at least in the U.S., the impacts are fairly small (the EPA puts contributions from livestock at around 3-4% of the total), we can also make strides by continuing to increase livestock productivity.

  • While cattle are more problematic on the GHG front, it is important to note that there are likely tradeoffs (real or perceived) on the animal welfare front in comparison with other species. Most beef cattle live most of their lives outdoors on a diet of grass or hay. Cattle often make use of marginal lands that would be environmentally degrading to bring into row crop production. By contrast, most pork and poultry live the vast majority of their lives indoors on a diet of corn and soy. See my book with Bailey Norwood on the topic of animal welfare.

  • There are some interesting innovations happening on the “lab grown meat” and “plant-based protein” space, which aim to replace protein from animal based sources. I haven’t seen these innovators make many claims about relative health benefits, but they often suggest significant benefits in terms of environmental impacts. I hope they’re ultimately right, but they’ve got a long way to go. Lab-grown meat isn’t a free lunch, and all those cells have to eat something. As I’ve also noted elsewhere, it is curious that these products (plant- or cell- based) are still more expensive than conventional meat products. If these alternative proteins are really saving resources, they should ultimately be much less expensive. Time will tell.

  • Despite the excitement around the alternative protein sources, I don’t think we’ll see an end to cattle production anytime in the near future. Why? Well, there is the aforementioned marginal land issue; many agricultural lands aren’t very productive for use in other activities other than feeding cattle or housing other livestock or poultry. Another issue is that cattle and other livestock are food waste preventing machines. A big example here is distillers grains. What happens to all the “spent” grain that runs through ethanol plants or beer breweries? Its feed to livestock. The same is true of “ugly fruit”, non-confirming bakery items, and more. Also, without animal agriculture, where will organic agriculture get all it’s fertilizer, which currently comes from the manure of conventionally raised farm animals?

  • Back to the EAT-Lancet commission, one of the big arguments for reducing meat consumption is health. While there are many studies associating meat consumption with various health problems, the strength of evidence is fairly weak. One big problem is that it’s really tough to do dietary-impact studies well and a lot of the evidence comes from fairly dubious dietary recall studies, but the other issue is that there is generally little attempt to separate correlation from causation. As I’ve written in other contexts, “Its high time for a credibility revolution in nutrition and epidemiology.”

  • The EAT-Lancet report focuses both on health and sustainability issues. However, as I noted with regard to the 2015 dietary guidelines, which initially aimed to do the same, this conflates science and values. As I wrote then, “Tell us which foods are more nutritious. Tell us which foods are more environmentally friendly. But, don't presume to know how much one values taste vs. nutrition, or environment vs. nutrition, or price vs. environment. And, recognize that we can't have it all. Life is full of trade-offs.”

  • Finally, I’ve heard it suggested that we need new policies and regulations to offset bad farm policies, which have led to overproduction of grains and livestock. This view is widely believed and also widely discredited. For example, see this piece by Tamar Haspel in the Washington Post. In the U.S., beef, pork, broilers, and eggs receive no direct production subsidies. Yes, there are various subsidies for feedstocks like corn and soy, but there are also other policies that push the prices of these commodities up rather than down (why would farmers want policies that would dampen the prices of their outputs?). Large scale CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) must comply with a host of rules and regulations that raise costs (it should be noted that the government provides some funding, through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) program, to incentivize certain practices by CAFOs thought to improve environmental outcomes). If U.S. farm bill was completely eliminated, there would not doubt be some change, but it wouldn’t do much to change the volume of meat, dairy, and egg produced.

That’s more than enough to chew on for now.