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Meat consumption: the force of habit

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Meat consumption has become a hot topic. Over-consumed to the detriment of health and the planet, accused of all evils, of undermining animal welfare, a social and highly political subject, meat is in the red. Meat-free days, vegan fashion, health alerts, nothing helps, we still and always continue to eat meat. The labs may try to tempt us with their meat substitutes, but the good rare steak and chips still has its followers. A force of habit, sometimes erected in culture, difficult to thwart. 
 

OThe ubiquity of meat on our plates, ultra-processed dishes, industrial sweets... Our diets are regularly pointed out by science. The famous medical journal The Lancet published a long article on January 16 about the consequences of our food on the environment and health.

The authors call for a radical change in our habits: it is a question of improving the health of populations and preserving the environment, which has a strong retroactive effect on food production. They essentially recommend reducing the consumption of meat, sweet products and industrial preparations in favour of fruit and vegetables, seeds and nuts, as well as legumes (peas, lentils, etc.).

Beyond the significant reduction in chronic disease, these changes would have significant impacts on household wallets. Based on the average weekly expenditure of a French family, a study published by the WWF in 2018 shows that a flexitarian basket - in which the share of animal proteins is sharply reduced in favour of vegetable proteins - would cost 21 % less than its current basket.

Taxing meat, an unfair method

These studies particularly highlight the substantial benefits of reduced meat consumption. However, the ability of consumers to do so is often thwarted by established habits.

According to the CredocHowever, French meat consumption has fallen by 12 % over the last ten years. In 2007, the French ate an average of 153 grams of meat products per day, compared to 135 grams in 2016, which corresponds to an average decrease of 18 grams in ten years.

In this context, certain scientists advocate the imposition of a very high tax on meat, which is difficult to implement in practice. High levies on meat, which is a relatively expensive product, also pose problems of equity, with the risk of excluding the most modest consumers. Eating meat in moderate quantities is beneficial to health, as meat provides the full range of amino acids, while plants lack B12 vitamins.

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Willing to pay for quality?

The information campaign aimed at consumers is another way of raising their awareness, even if its effect is generally modest. The effectiveness of such an approach depends on a good knowledge of consumer perceptions and their reaction to the information. Questionnaires and experimental studies make it possible to determine their preferences accurately.

Experimental economics places a group of individuals in a situation where their real behaviour is simulated (if it is in the laboratory) or influenced (if it is in the field) to reveal their inclinations or propensities to pay for products of different qualities. Compared to other preference determination methods, the laboratory experimental method has the advantage of accuracy and control of the information revealed to consumers.

It is thus possible to identify the conditions under which participants are willing to spend a higher amount: this "willingness to pay" will also change according to the new data they receive. These indicators offer an idea of the potential changes that could occur in the markets, but do not reflect actual conditions in the stores.

Beef or soy steak

For example, this method makes it possible to assess what would potentially influence convinced carnivores. In November 2015, a team of researchers carried out a experience on the meat. 124 participants were randomly selected on the basis of the quota method - which provides a representative sample of the age groups and socio-economic status of the city's population.

 

Soy steak

Initially, individuals were offered two ground beef steaks and two soy steaks, representing a vegetable alternative close to meat. They then indicated their purchasing intentions for different prices, making it possible to measure their willingness to pay according to the products. At this stage, they did not have any specific information.

In a second step, participants were informed about the impact of the different products on health and the environment and updated their choices. At the end of the experiment, new purchase intentions were indicated, after the original beef was replaced by beef sold with an Label Rouge and accompanied by explanations on the specifications of this label.

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Young people more sensitive to substitutes

Firstly, it can be seen that the average "willingness to pay" for veggie steak is lower but relatively close to that for the animal product. This suggests that in the future, substitution between the two types of products would be possible, especially if the price of meat increases sharply.

Health and environmental information, when revealed, significantly reduces purchase intentions for beef steaks, and significantly increases those for soy-based steaks, although these shifts are relatively small, with relative absolute changes of less than 8 %.

It should be noted that reactions to information concerning "willingness to pay" for soybeans are significantly higher among young consumers (+8.1 %) than among older consumers (+4.4 %). This sensitivity of the young participants confirms, in the long term, the possibilities of significant substitution of plant-based products for animal products.

 

The results are presented using the following figure, where the three steps are shown on the x-axis and the provisions to be paid in euro are shown on the y-axis. Notes on the figure: Δ * denotes a significant difference at 5 % and Δ ** denotes a significant difference at 1 % as tested by the Wilcoxon test to compare a matched sample of willingness to pay.

Red Label, the success of quality meat

The introduction of high quality beef steak results in a statistically significant increase in participants' willingness to pay for beef, while the willingness to pay for soy does not change significantly. The figure shows that this increase in "willingness to pay" for labelled beef is the largest relative to the other variations.

The positive effect of the Label Rouge underlines the participants' sensitivity to the quality of beef. The specifications for this mention guarantee practices that respect animals, meadows and the environment.

The above-mentioned debate should therefore not only focus on the substitution between animal and vegetable products, but also on the development of labels and the promotion of better quality meat.

Stephan MaretteResearch Director at INRA, economist, Agro ParisTech - Université Paris-Saclay

This article is republished from The ConversationUP' Magazine's editorial partner. Read theoriginal paper.

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