Beef By Any Other Name
Raising cows for meat is hard on the planet and hard on the animals, and the dangers of red meat for human health, at least in the quantities eaten in the U.S., are increasingly apparent. Until recently, palatable alternatives were few, but that is changing. In the last few years, several companies have created products that convincingly reproduce the experience of eating meat, specifically cow meat (“beef”). These new products come in two varieties. One is completely plant-based but designed to mimic the taste and texture of beef. The other cultures live animal cells in a lab to create actual meat. The plant-based alternatives are now widely available for purchase while the lab-grown products can’t yet be produced at scale and aren’t commercially available.
While interest in these novel non-animal-based protein sources is high, there is relatively little data about the demand for such products. U.S. consumers express great interest in meat alternatives, but they still eat more beef than all but two other countries. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that we ate an average of 57.2 pounds of beef per person in 2018. Given the popularity of beef and other meat, will enough people be willing to switch to meat alternatives to create a viable market? To learn more about consumer preferences for non-meat alternatives, researchers conducted an online national survey of 1,830 U.S. adults. Survey respondents approximately mirrored the demographics of the population in terms of age, gender, income education, and location.
Survey respondents completed a choice experiment in which they selected from farm-raised beef burgers and three alternative burger patties. The alternatives included a burger made from pea protein, one with animal-like (heme) protein, and a lab-grown version. Prices were varied as was the information presented for the purchase options. Some subjects saw information about brands. Others received information about environmental sustainability and animal welfare. Still others learned about the technology behind the meat alternatives. Also included were three policy questions: one asked about imposing a 10% tax on farm raised beef to fund environmental and animal welfare objectives; another questioned the appropriateness of using the term ‘beef’ in the context of plant-based or lab-grown alternatives; in a similar vein, a final question asked about support for a policy requiring that any product labeled as ‘beef’ come from animals raised in a traditional manner.
Holding prices equal, almost three-quarters of subjects (72%) chose conventional meat burgers. The remaining 28% chose one of the alternatives. Of this group, 16% chose the burger made of pea protein, 7% the burger made from animal-like protein and 5%, the lab-grown patties. Adding brand names (Certified Angus Beef, Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, and Memphis Meats) made the farm-raised burger more attractive, with a full 80% choosing this version. Even reducing the price of the alternatives by 50% didn’t sway the meat-eaters.
Vegetarians, males, younger, and more highly educated subjects showed a stronger preference for meat alternatives. Providing sustainability information increased consumers’ willingness to purchase these replacements. However, learning about the technology used to produce the plant-based patties had the opposite effect, and nterestingly, providing information about environmental or production technology didn’t reduce the number of participants who chose beef. Instead, it brought consumers who didn’t like any of the choices into the market.
As for the policy questions, more than 70% of respondents opposed using the word ‘beef’ on any of the alternative meat products, and four out of five (81%) agreed with regulatory efforts to limit the term to animals raised in the traditional way. Just over a third (36%) supported a 10% tax on farm-raised beef to fund environmental and animal welfare objectives. This was also the group that was less likely to choose the farm-raised burgers when given the choice of meat alternatives.
Animal advocates can use this information when crafting campaigns to encourage consumers to try meat alternatives. This study suggests that consumers don’t want to dive too deeply into how companies make meat alternatives. Instead, they want to focus on how a plant-based choice will help the environment. Given the strong opposition to labeling these products with any reference to their animal analog, advocates and marketers may have their work cut out for them. Yet perhaps we can turn this opposition to our advantage. We want consumers to understand that they’re buying a plant-based alternative, and we also want them to wonder, after trying it, why they’d ever want to go back to the meat counter.