A recent survey from Oklahoma State University found that while more than 90% of U.S. consumers eat meat, 47% of them agreed with the statement, "I support a ban on slaughterhouses," according to Meatingplace. The survey then asked whether they knew slaughterhouses were integral to meat consumption, and 73% responded that they did.
This apparent contradiction mirrors another survey the Sentience Institute did in late 2017. That survey found that 47.4% of those who responded said they agreed with the same statement: "I support a ban on slaughterhouses."
The Oklahoma State researchers recreated the Sentience Institute survey to see whether they would get the same responses. They found that the "startling outcome" presented an opportunity for a teachable moment about using survey results. "However useful they are, people will state attitudes in surveys that run contrary to their behaviors in the real world," they wrote. "That said, surveys can sometimes tell us more about what consumers want in their social and political institutions than their individual behaviors."
Assuming that respondents to both surveys were sharing genuine sentiments, there could be several reasons for this apparent gap between values and actions. Most people don't want to think about the production cycle that turns farm animals into individual packages of meat at the grocery store. Related to that is the NIMBY factor — or, Not In My Back Yard — since many people don't want the sights, sounds and smells of a slaughterhouse anywhere near where they live.
As the two surveys indicate, consumers are still keen on meat consumption regardless of their concerns about slaughterhouses. In fact, USDA projects that the average U.S. consumer will eat 222.2 pounds of red meat and poultry in 2018, a record high. Livestock producers are expanding herds due to cheap feed grain, and domestic production is expected to also hit an all-time high this year.
Consumers claim they want to eat healthier and are more environmentally conscious, but for many, their feelings are not strong enough that they are willing to give up or significantly curtail their meat consumption. However, the concern about health and sustainability could lead to growth in grass-fed, organic meat production and higher sales for companies that stress improved animal welfare practices.
The top reasons for consumer interest in protein include the desire for healthy diets, weight management, building muscle, boosting energy and managing appetites. Since plenty of consumers believe those things can only be acquired from animal sources, meat and poultry consumption is likely to continue on an upward path even with the growing presence of plant-based products.
As the situation continues to evolve, it may present a lucrative opportunity for plant-based meat analogues and cell-cultured proteins, especially if consumers find them realistic and tasty enough — and at a reasonable price point — to present an acceptable alternative to meat.
According to Nielsen data, plant-based foods experienced 8.1% growth in sales during 2016, and plant-based meats alone accounted for 2.1% of sales in refrigerated and frozen meat products sold at retail. If that kind of growth continues, surveys about meat consumption could be asking some very different questions in the future and getting more surprising responses.