A major challenge facing industry and policy makers in the future battle for food security and sustainability will be convincing consumers to reduce meat consumption - especially in high-meat eating countries, according to the new study published in Appetite.
Indeed, the Dutch authors behind the study noted that in order to secure the world’s future protein supply, which is widely expected to be stretched to breaking point by 2050 if current practices continue, new initiatives will be needed, aimed at reducing animal protein intake and encouraging consumption of plant-based replacements.
Revealing consumer data from more than 1,000 participants, the research team found that such strategies, which generally focus on changing meat eating frequencies and meat portion sizes, appeal to 'overlapping but partly different' segments of consumers, meaning that a mixture of strategies and communication methods should be used by industry, NGOs and policy makers in order to address the widest group of consumers.
"The strategies appeared to have different strengths and weaknesses, making them complementary pathways to facilitate step-by-step changes in the amounts and the sources of protein consumed," explained the team, led by Joop de Boer of VU University.
"Deciding to have a meal without meat may coincide with the purchase of a meat replacer, as the correlation between these variables indicates. Similarly, deciding to eat meat and preferring a small portion of it may go together with the purchase of organic or free range meat, at least among consumers with a normal weight," they team explained. "These differences are important with a view to addressing consumers based on their own preferences."
The team noted that at the consumer level, the problem is not just to ask them to eat less meat, but also to make them change certain activities and steps involved in eating behaviour. This entails both conscious decision making and habitual, automatic and subconscious actions, they said.
"Meat’s special status in society is closely connected to the structure of meals, such as the notion of one piece of meat and two vegetables. Hence, just asking consumers to eat less meat may trigger not only resistance to change but also confusion regarding amounts and sources of protein."
"Such a request requires changes at the level of macronutrients that may not be directly transparent to consumers," added de Boer and his colleagues.
However, the group said their findings demonstrate that various change strategies are feasible and that each can be supported by theoretical insights on consumer choices.
"However, one of the basic questions about their applicability is whether strategies to change meat eating frequencies and meat portion sizes would appeal to the same or to different segments of consumers," they said, noting that their preliminary data suggests that certain consumer groups respond better to different arguments and strategies.
"Good information on this topic is currently lacking, but it is important to make the discussion on change strategies more concrete."
"To make a real difference, diet change strategies should focus on the level of the whole diet and pay due attention to the whole diverse range of consumers and their dietary choices," the team concluded.
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2014.02.002
"'Meatless days' or 'less but better' Exploring strategies to adapt Western meat consumption to health and sustainability challenges"
Authors: Joop de Boer, Hanna Schösler, Harry Aiking