One of my Ph.D. students at Oklahoma State (and soon to be faculty member at Mississippi State University) has been working on an interesting paper on the impacts of changing cattle sizes on the desirability of steaks. The average beef cow now weights more than 300lbs more than it did a few decades ago. Generally that's a good thing as we can get more meat from fewer animals (which means less resource use, less land, less greenhouse gas emissions, etc. in addition to lower prices for consumers).
But, there's a downside:
The key question, then, is whether people prefer thicker steaks with smaller surface areas (like those that existed 20 years ago) or thinner steaks with larger surface areas (like those that sell today)? To address this question, a survey was taken by a representative sample of over 1,000 steak consumers. We gave consumers choices like the one below, and asked which steak they'd choose. Consumers answered a number of these questions where the steak thickness, area, and price, systematically varied across choices.
So, what did we find? For most consumers, there is a trade off between thickness and size. Moreover, it seems changes in thickness are more important than changes in size. As a result, most consumers are less happy with the steaks they see today in the grocery store (holding prices constant). That is, consumers prefer a thicker, smaller area steak to a thinner, larger area steak. We use the estimates to do a little thought experiment. How much additional money would have to be to give to today's consumers to make their steak choices as satisfying as they were 40 years ago (in terms of thickness and area, holding prices constant)?
Now, it should be noted that consumers might be, overall, better off from changing cattle sizes because they now have more ground beef available and because prices are lower than they'd otherwise be.
Josh's paper was accepted for presentation in one of the new lightening sessions at the AAEA meetings this year in Boston. These are short sessions where authors have only seven minutes to present their work. Here's Josh presenting this paper in lighting session format.