… How important are these labeling debates? We are agricultural economists and have published a number of studies examining how consumers respond to changes at the grocery store. One key takeaway is that small labeling changes are unlikely to induce large changes in the way people purchase food. Indeed, we believe restrictions on what can be called meat could ultimately strengthen pushback against the meat industry…
Government restrictions on labeling products as 'meat' aren't likely to help anyone
By Trey Malone & Brandon McFadden, The Economic Times (India)
October 9, 2019
Substitutes for traditional meat products have captured the attention of investors, the media and consumers. Plant-based meat options are showing up in grocery stores and on the menus at fast food chains like Burger King and restaurants like TGI Fridays.
These products are not necessarily targeted just at vegans or vegetarians, who comprise around 2% of the U.S. population over age 17. Meat, on the other hand, is a well-established market. In 2018 Americans consumed 57.2 pounds of beef, 92.4 pounds of chicken and 50.9 pounds of pork per capita.
Nonetheless, the meat industry is defending its turf – including in the grocery store. Missouri passed a law in 2018 restricting use of the word “meat” to animal-based proteins, and now more than 20 other states are considering or have enacted similar legislation. Countersuits have been filed, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is assessing whether the federal government should clarify differences between traditional and nontraditional meat.
How important are these labeling debates? We are agricultural economists and have published a number of studies examining how consumers respond to changes at the grocery store. One key takeaway is that small labeling changes are unlikely to induce large changes in the way people purchase food. Indeed, we believe restrictions on what can be called meat could ultimately strengthen pushback against the meat industry.
Consumers want labels
Academic studies of other food technologies, such as genetically modified organisms, have found that consumers generally prefer a labeling policy to help guide their decisions. To explore how regulations specifying what can be labeled “meat” could influence consumer decisions, we conducted a survey with Cornell University economist Chris Wolf and graduate student Benjamin DeMuth of 1,502 food households across the United States. We wanted to find out how regulating use of the word “meat” could affect consumers’ understanding of ingredients and nutritional content, and their food choices.
Approximately half of our respondents were shown products with the type of labels that grocery stores use now, where nontraditional meat is labeled as “meat.” The other half viewed products with labels that described plant-based and cell-based products as “protein.” Our key question was whether forbidding food manufacturers from labeling plant-based and cell-based products as “meat” would make consumers more or less confused about these products’ ingredients and nutritional content.
Responses suggested that consumers don’t understand the nutrition of the foods they purchase, and are especially likely to overestimate the nutrition quality of plant-based alternatives. Respondents who were shown the current labeling scheme overestimated the amount of cholesterol, protein, sodium and trans fats in both meat and nontraditional meat products, but underestimated their calorie contents.
When we asked people how many calories they thought various products contained, they estimated that the plant-based Beyond Meat option contained 51% fewer calories than it really does. For traditional meat options, they underestimated calorie contents by 24% to 34%. Many people were even confused about the likely ingredients in their products. Approximately 30% of respondents thought the plant-based Beyond Burger contained ground beef.
These findings might seem to argue for government intervention and more specific labeling. However, respondents who viewed nontraditional meat products with labels that did not use the word “meat” were just as confused about ingredients and nutritional content. In sum, whether a product carried the m-word or not, consumers knew little about what it contained or whether it was good for them.
No clear commercial advantage ...
Helping consumers choose ...
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