Taking Nuggets Off The Table: Exploring The Impact Of Different Animal Product Formats
By most measures, it is truly an exciting time to be vegan: new and exciting food products are proliferating quickly on local, regional, and national levels, and it feels like every month there is a new product being launched, or a major company or retailer announcing a plant-based line of foods. While it’s hard to imagine that most major meat companies selling plant-based burgers alongside their conventional fare are driven by ethics, for us as advocates and for companies with a mission rooted in animal advocacy, the question of animal impact is an important one.
Recently, Ali Ladak (economist, Faunalytics volunteer, and Sentience Institute researcher) and I set about answering a central question about animal products. How do different products (chicken vs. dairy vs. fish…) and product formats (nuggets vs. breaded filets vs. ground…) impact animals? And with this information, when entrepreneurs and manufacturers create new plant-based products, what should they prioritize? What about individuals who want to reduce their consumption one product at a time?
Everything we learned, we’ve turned into a series of infographics called Animal Product Impact Scales. These will be permanently available on a hub page here on our site, but I want to take this opportunity of their publication to walk you through the process we followed and a few of the findings.
Information about which animal products people eat came from the CDC’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES)—a nationally representative, face-to-face survey of over 8,000 people in the United States. We categorized every food people reported eating in the NHANES in terms of the animal products and product formats it used. For example, chili con carne, beef tacos, and meat lasagna were all categorized as containing beef—and more specifically, ground beef. So we calculated the total amount of ground beef consumed in a day from the proportion of beef in those dishes (plus the rest of the products in the dataset), and extrapolated the results from the sample out to the entire population of the U.S. (which is very reliable with such a large and well-conducted study).
We multiplied the total amount of each product (like ground beef) that people consume by the number of animal lives and days of suffering that go into it, using publicly-available information from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), as well as resources produced by industry, academics, and advocates — the most reliable and unbiased source we could find for each estimate. The full list of sources and granular detail about our methods are available in our detailed Methodology document.
Of course, animal advocates know that the number of animal lives and days of suffering that go into each kilogram of edible animal product differs substantially for beef, pork, chicken, turkey, dairy, eggs, fish, and shellfish. This was the most challenging part of the process, as those estimates have to incorporate a range of calculations, including the amount of edible product per animal, pre-production mortality (because animals who die before producing a consumable product should still be accounted as losses), average lifespan per animal (to calculate days of suffering), and more.
Finally, to ensure that any eccentricities in the sample data or estimates wouldn’t introduce bias into our impact scales, we weighted the final consumption numbers to USDA data about how much of each product is consumed annually. This ensures that the totals by product (pork, eggs, etc.) are accurate, but all the steps in between provide new and important adjustments to our estimates of the impact of individual product formats (sausage, breaded cutlet etc.), which was our central goal.
With this data (which you can download in spreadsheet format here on a per-serving basis for individuals and here for the U.S. as a whole), we constructed a series of infographics meant to provide you with a visual overview of the results, and how much impact can be made by replacing animal product formats on both a national and individual level. The full report and set of infographics is available on our hub page here. Below, I’ve chosen to focus on the top three impactful products per category.
Digging Into The Top 3s
These infographics show the three most impactful products per category (chicken, pork, dairy, etc.), taking into account typical serving sizes and popularity. They can be used by companies who need to determine which specific consumer product to pursue first. They can also be used as a roadmap by advocacy organizations looking to help people reduce or transition slowly to veganism in the most impactful way possible.
Top 3 Impactful Products Per Category For Reducing Days of Suffering:
Top 3 Impactful Products Per Category For Reducing Lives Taken:
When looking at the top 3s, what determines the order? The impact (in lives and suffering) of eating 100 grams of chicken is the same regardless of format so the impact rankings come down to one of two things: differences in the size of a serving or differences in popularity. Products that tend to be eaten in larger quantities or are consumed more frequently will appear higher on the list.
We can see in the above graphics that, in most categories, there are clear front-runners in terms of impact. In other words, if companies make replacements that mimic shrimp, scrambled eggs, luncheon meats, ground beef, fish filets, and milk well enough, they could have a huge impact in terms of both reducing suffering and saving lives for farmed animals of multiple species. The exception is the chicken category, where it’s hard to go wrong on the highest-impact products. We suspect that many products ended up relatively high on the impact scales because they’re all similarly sized and very popular. Replacing any of these with plant-based alternatives is a high-impact move.
Fortunately, there seems to be movement in many of these sectors. Beyond Meat, for example, has been making waves around the world with their ground “meat” products. Though they are not yet cost-competitive with conventional meat, the taste and texture gets rave reviews, and a Life Cycle Assessment shows they offer a clear environmental advantage. In the dairy sector, plant-based milks have been chipping away at the market share for years as the quality of alternatives has risen and half of U.S. omnivores use them. It’s a great success story of a shift in the animal product alternatives space, and one that likely makes a strong ecological impact as well.
Other sectors have seen some movement as well. Just Egg made a splash with their scrambled egg substitute, though it’s not clear how much market share it’s been able to snag. Meanwhile, while veg alternatives have had a presence in the luncheon meat sector for a very long time, their verisimilitude has never quite reached the point where they’ve taken serious market share. My personal hope is that the new generation of meat alternatives will be a rising tide that lifts luncheon meat up with it.
Finally, shrimp and fish filet alternatives seem to be further behind; while there are some products that exist, there hasn’t been the same clear push for new products in those areas. Veg startups focused on alternatives to shrimp and fish filets could make a huge impact by offering products that provide the taste and texture consumers are looking for.
What This Means For Advocates & The Movement
The landscape of animal product alternatives is becoming more varied and vibrant each day. This is great news, because as we can see from the charts above and from the full set of Impact Scales, there are tremendous stakes at play, in terms of lives saved and days of suffering spared. Anything advocacy organizations can do to move the needle in the right direction for animals is a good thing, and these rankings provide some useful ideas for how to get there.
Of course, cultivated meat (a.k.a. cell-based, clean, or cultured) will likely play a role in these shifts, and may make an impact far beyond what any plant-based alternative can. Though it’s still not clear when cultivated meat will become commercially available, we hope that it will change the game by reducing the breeding and slaughter of animals for food.
In the meantime, our hub page has per-serving impact scales that can be used by individuals who want to make the biggest impact with their own choices. If you’re reading this blog, you may have already cut all animal products out of your life, but chances are that you know many people who haven’t. Like you, I have friends and family who aren’t ready to go vegan—and might even shut down at the first hint of suggesting it—but they’re thinking about their impact and open to smaller changes. Why not show them that just because they aren’t willing to give up bacon, it doesn’t mean they can’t do anything? There are many high-impact products that easily add up to dozens of lives saved and hundreds of days of suffering avoided. Please share these resources to help the people around you take steps in the right direction!