Meat-Out Day raising concerns for meat industry with growing trend to eat plant-based alternatives

Candace Krebs
The Ag Journal
In 2013, while on the faculty at Oklahoma State University, agricultural economist Jayson Lusk published "The Food Police: A Well-Fed Manifesto about the Politics of Your Plate." He is now the head of agricultural economics at Purdue University. He returned to Kansas State University, his alma mater, to give a presentation at K-State Cattlemen’s Day, where he was asked to address the impact of Meat Out Day and similar campaigns.

The potential beef demand impact of Colorado’s recent “Meat-Out Day” declaration and pandemic-triggered problems with supply chain resiliency and market transparency were discussed during the recent K-State Cattlemen’s Day, held virtually this year.

Last year’s event was held in Manhattan, Kansas, just one week before the first COVID pandemic lockdowns began around the country. Much of this year’s program was dedicated to making sense of the long-term ramifications of the pandemic on meat marketing and distribution.

However, another top-of-mind issue that arose concerned a decision by Colorado Governor Jared Polis to proclaim March 20 as Colorado Meat Out Day, on the eve of National Agriculture Week and just days ahead of the traditional statewide Ag Day celebration.

The frustration among ranchers has been particularly heated due to the proclamation’s wording.

“Removing animal products from our diets reduces the risk of various ailments, including heart disease, high-blood pressure, stroke, various cancers, and diabetes, and a plant-based diet helps protect the environment by reducing our carbon footprint, preserving forests, grasslands, and wildlife habitats, and reduces pollution of waterways,” the proclamation states.

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During Cattlemen’s Day, the keynote speaker was asked if he could quantify how much impact activities of this sort actually have on beef demand.

“It’s a good research question and one I have not seen addressed,” responded Jayson Lusk, an agricultural economist widely known for conducting frequent consumer surveys and attempting to chart consumer influences and trends.

Lusk earned his doctorate at Kansas State University in 2000, spent several years after that as a professor at Oklahoma State University and is now head of agricultural economics at Purdue University.

In other places like California where Meat Out celebrations have been held in the past, beef demand measures remain strong, Lusk said.

Overall, these voluntary calls to cut back on meat seem to have minimal effect, he said. Meat Out Day, in particular, has reportedly been observed by around 40 different states and cities at various times.

“What I would keep my eye out for is do we see some locales turning that into policy actions?” he said.

When state or local governments use such sentiments to justify action — one prime example is “Meatless Mondays,” a movement that even USDA initially promoted to its own employees back in 2012 — not surprisingly the impact on beef demand is negative, Lusk said.

But another consequence of these campaigns is to echo and magnify the marketing claims made by plant-based meat alternatives, which are suddenly becoming more prevalent in the marketplace.

Consumer acceptance of plant-based alternatives is another issue Lusk has followed closely and something his audience at Cattlemen’s Day was curious to hear more about.

Consumers consistently express greater interest in plant-based alternatives on surveys than what is actually observed in the marketplace, Lusk said, but that could partly be a function of availability and pricing.

“Some people buying these wouldn’t have bought a beef alternative to begin with,” Lusk added. “Typically the characteristics of these shoppers are that they aren’t big beef buyers to begin with, so some of the substitution is just the addition of people into a space that hadn’t existed before.”

Robert Norris’ take was a little more sobering.

Norris, another guest speaker, is a director at food industry consulting firm Radian Group.

In the past, he said, meat alternatives were a niche made up of products that didn’t attempt to replicate “the bite and texture and flavor” of beef. Now that has changed, with alternative meat companies aggressively courting what Norris called “flexitarians,” people who are open to changing the makeup of their diets.

“They aren’t going after vegans,” he said of the newer companies, further noting, “There are a lot more options out there now, and these products are getting exposure.”

For now, the number of consumers who can afford these new products is small, but that is likely to change as prices fall, he added.

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Recent research done at K-State showed that Kansas consumers still overwhelmingly prefer ground beef to plant-based beef alternatives. Ground beef, whether offered with 10 percent, 20 percent or 30 percent fat, was strongly preferred for taste and flavor over plant-based alternatives, according to a study conducted by meat scientist Travis O’Quinn.

In taste tests, consumers rated the plant-based alternatives as “extremely dry” and “very low” in flavor, according to O’Quinn. In one test, only 18 percent of the consumers said they would be willing to buy the plant-based alternative after trying it.

Plant-based offerings have grown in grocery stores and some restaurants over the past six years, O’Quinn noted, but “not many of these products are tested or evaluated on how they really do stack up to ground beef,” he said.

Among the key differences, the plant products were softer and less likely to hold together, whereas real ground beef provided a stickier texture which was preferred by most consumers, he said.