A Peek At Big Beef’s Playbook
Plant-based protein alternatives may represent a small fraction of the protein market, but that fraction is growing, and it’s making the U.S. cow meat / “beef” industry nervous — nervous enough, in fact, to produce an in-depth study on the impact of plant-based alternatives on beef demand. As animal welfare advocates, such a drop in demand for cow meat is exactly what we hope to see. By examining their playbook, we can anticipate and counter their strategies and gain an advantage in the fight to stop the exploitation of cows.
For this study, investigators administered a survey and conducted two experiments, one modeling a restaurant and one modeling a grocery store.
The survey was administered to 3,000 adult U.S. residents, whom the investigators divided into groups according to self-reported diet: Those who regularly consume beef, and those who do not (vegetarians, flexitarians, vegans, etc.). These alternative dieters reflected predictable demographic characteristics: young, high income, democrat, and concerned with animal welfare and the environment. Among all participants from both groups, 1 in 2 reported having eaten beef the previous day, while 1 in 6 reported having eaten a plant-based alternative protein the previous day.
In the restaurant experiment, investigators examined consumer preferences between beef, chicken, and plant-based offerings under various conditions. By changing the price and availability of different offerings, they found that beef demand drops more when the beef price goes up then when the plant-based protein price goes down. They found that the average consumer is willing to pay a price for beef that is higher than the current real price, while the price they are willing to pay for a plant-based meal is lower than the current real price. Investigators determined that for consumers to be indifferent between a beef meal and a plant-based meal, the plant-based meal would have to cost $1.11 less than the beef meal.
In the grocery store experiment, investigators ran two scenarios — one in which participants could select only one protein and one in which participants could select as many proteins as they wished in whatever amounts they wished. Investigators learned that most participants who selected a plant-based protein also selected beef. They also found that participants who regularly consume beef are more price-sensitive than those following an alternative diet. This indicates that those who regularly consume beef are more willing to switch to cheaper products as their preferred product becomes more expensive.
All of these findings are mildly interesting, but the really fascinating thing about this report is what it can tell us about the beef industry’s likely strategy going forward and how we, wishing them no ill but determined to end animal suffering, can thwart that strategy. So, here are the four biggest takeaways, what we expect the U.S. beef industry will do about them, and what we as advocates can do about them:
Consumers believe beef is tastier, more natural, and better for farmers and rural communities, but worse for the environment
The beef industry will respond by trying to accentuate the tastiness and naturalness of beef. They may try to preserve the perception that beef is tastier by highlighting the broader array of beef products currently available, compared with plant-based options which so far cannot mimic steak or other full-grain beef products. They may try to make plant-based protein look unnatural by pointing out its longer ingredient lists. They will try to perpetuate the belief that the beef industry is good for farmers and rural communities, ignoring the serious health and safety concerns expressed by workers in the industry and members of rural communities. And they will try to draw attention away from those for whom beef clearly is not good: that is, cows and future generations of all species who will inherit a depleted ecosystem.
Advocates can respond by supporting research and development of plant-based or cultured proteins to make them just as tasty as beef. We can dismantle the idea that beef is natural by raising awareness of the unnatural processes inflicted on cows used for beef at every stage of their lives, from artificial insemination, to being wrenched from their mothers, to being fattened on an unnatural diet laced with antibiotics, to dying unnaturally early in slaughterhouses. We can raise awareness of the ways in which the beef industry harms and exploits cows, the environment, and even the farmers and rural communities it is thought to benefit.
Consumers, especially those who regularly eat beef, are price sensitive.
The beef industry will respond by trying to produce beef more affordably. They cannot afford to sacrifice key drivers of beef demand like taste and freshness, so they’ll have to innovate or cut corners elsewhere, for example by increasing line speeds in slaughterhouses or by further manipulating cows’ diets to bring them to slaughter weight faster. They may also step up lobbying efforts to expand subsidies.
Advocates can respond by fighting against beef subsidies which keep cow meat prices artificially low. We will have to fight chicken and pork subsidies at the same time, or consumers might ditch beef only to switch to these other highly substitutable products. We should also work to amplify the voices of workers and communities harmed by the beef industry.
The size of the protein market pie is more important than the slice allotted to beef.
Demand for protein overall is steadily growing, and as long as this continues, the beef industry doesn’t have to worry too much about plant-based protein chipping away at its share. Beef will try to keep the public’s focus on protein in order to continue to grow the protein market pie.
Advocates can respond with informational campaigns to temper consumers’ obsession with protein. Certainly, beef has more protein and iron than plant-based alternatives, but plant-based alternatives have more fiber, less cholesterol, and less fat. In a nation whose adult population consumes roughly twice the necessary protein and faces unprecedented rates of obesity and heart disease, shouldn’t we be more focused on limiting cholesterol and fat than on consuming even more protein?
Partnerships tie the fate of retailers to the fate of beef.
The report recommends that the beef industry establish relationships to “subtly…t[ie] retailers’ profitability more closely to the fate of beef and cattle production”. By contracting and maintaining relationships with retailers, the beef industry ensures that stores and restaurants have a vested interest in the beef industry’s success.
Advocates and plant-based protein brands can follow suit, establishing partnerships with restaurants and retailers, as Beyond Meat has done with restaurants like Burger King, McDonalds, and KFC. This study demonstrated that most people who buy plant-based products are not veg*n, and these partnerships may serve not only to align retailers interests with the interests of plant-based protein, but also to give plant-based protein more exposure to meat consumers willing to try something new.
Even as the beef industry continues to enjoy a large market share, it can see the writing on the wall. The industry knows it doesn’t measure up on health, environmental friendliness, or animal welfare, all of which are values important to the younger generation. Plant-based protein alternatives are receiving huge investments, which will enable them to become more and more competitive against beef. Public policy is becoming more environmentally conscious, which will hit the methane-heavy beef industry hard. In short, time is on our side, and strategic action by animal advocates can help accelerate the fall of beef and the liberation of its victims.