Food Controversies and Food System Disruption
In the U.S., eating meat is considered a normal, everyday practice. As a result, most people do not consider cutting out meat from their diets until they are faced with some kind of disruption that challenges their often deeply-held beliefs about meat and the meat production system.
This paper, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, investigated the nature of consumer disruption in response to meat controversies. The author conducted six focus groups in which participants responded to statements about meat and meat consumption. Based on these discussions and previously published research, the author explores three disruptions—all of which seem to have only temporary impacts on meat consumption:
Hazards concerning nutrition and food safety: While various media and scientific outlets warn people about the health hazards associated with eating too much meat, their messages are often contradictory and confusing. As a result, potentially disruptive news is stopped in its path. Consumers are able to “latch onto the health information that justifies their own ingrained habits,” trivialize information, or adopt the watered-down approach of “it’s all about moderation.” Similarly, while food safety scares like the British mad cow crisis of 1996 can have a more immediate effect on consumption, their impact on the long-term demand for meat products has been small and temporary.
Disgust-based disruption: Disgust has the potential to disrupt consumers’ enjoyment of meat products by breaching both the “spatial/temporal and cognitive/affective distances which separate consumers from controversial production practices.” In the focus groups, participants said they were disgusted when they saw blood and bones from certain animals, ate unusual cuts of meat, or considered eating parts of an animal’s head. But, most participants stated that the experiences did not affect their overall consumption behavior.
Ethical disruption: The author notes that “critical ethical questions can interrupt consumers’ understanding that using animals for food is without harm (and thus legitimate).” He asked focus group participants to respond to the statement “eating animals is cruel.” And he found that while several participants struggled with the question, many ultimately provided justifications for eating meat. The justifications included arguing that there is a grey area between right and wrong and distinguishing between animals considered to be “pets” and “livestock.”
Overlapping disruptions: Finally, the author explores the idea of overlapping disruptions. He notes that the “pink slime” controversy of 2012 combined health hazards and disgust. But it ultimately failed to make an impact on meat consumption. This was largely because many consumers did not even understand what contained pink slime. He also provides an example of a successful ethical/disgust disruption—a focus group participant said that she could not eat certain meat with veins because it reminded her of the human body. And he notes that disruptions of this nature can be quite powerful. This is because they “disrupt consumers’ orientation to meat as a normal everyday item.”
The author concludes by stating that disruption is most effective when the three core disruptive elements “overlap with one another in the context of a single issue or event.” This creates an experience that “can be particularly unsettling for many consumers.”
For advocates, the study points out the need for sharing both regular and consistent information about the hazards, disgust, and ethical dilemmas associated with meat. An isolated crisis or experience involving one disruption has only a temporary effect on consumption. Also, as advocates are likely aware, the times of such crises offer ideal opportunities to further build on disruptive messages. During such times, people may be open to challenging their standard beliefs.
The author notes in his conclusion, “while the most threatening implications of the three disruptive elements….may not be fully absorbed into the consciousness of each person affected by them, the disruptions nonetheless disturb, if only momentarily, taken-for-granted orientations toward meat.” They violate a long-held assumption that “meat is healthy, safe, delicious, ordinary, and benign.”