‘Cigarette-style’ climate, pandemic and health labels on meat can reduce meat consumption, study suggests

By Augustus Bambridge-Sutton

- Last updated on GMT

Climate warning labels reduced meat consumption, the study found. Image Source: Jack Hughes/Durham University
Climate warning labels reduced meat consumption, the study found. Image Source: Jack Hughes/Durham University

Related tags Health Warning pandemic Climate change Meat consumption

In the past, health warning labels on products such as cigarettes and alcohol have influenced consumer behaviour. Now, a new study shows that, with the right images, warnings on meat products about health effects, contribution to climate change, and potential link to the rise of a new pandemic can impact consumer meal choices.

The study, published in the journal Appetite​, assessed the impact of warning labels, including images calculated for maximum emotional impact, on whether or not respondents would choose a meal containing meat, as well as willingness to eat, buy and recommend the meal, their emotional response to the labels, and whether they would support a policy to include them on meat products.

Success of warning labels

Previous warning labels focused on negative health effects of products, such as cigarettes and alcohol, have shown high levels of success in the past.

However, one previous study testing the effect of labels warning on the potential climate impact of food found that the difference made by the warning was negligible. On the other hand, this was a purely text-based warning.

In the present study, researchers from Durham University in the UK used the previous success of health warnings as a springboard to test whether similar warnings on meat products would work in reducing meat consumption. They used three different warnings: that the product could cause negative health effects, that it was linked to climate change, and that it was linked to potential pandemics.

Regarding the pandemic label, the study emphasised the strength of the link between meat and pandemics: according to a 2020 UN report, four in seven human-mediated factors leading to new zoonotic diseases (diseases transmitted from animals to humans) are linked to livestock.

Unlike in the case of the previous study on climate warning labels, the researchers paired their text warnings with images, chosen in a pilot study, that were intended to evoke strong emotions in participants. The images were vetted by behavioural science experts.

Meal choices

To test the effectiveness of the warning labels, researchers recruited 1001 participants from the UK, representative of the demographics of the country in terms of age and gender but all meat-eaters.

The participants were divided into four groups – those given the climate warning label, those given the health warning label, those given the pandemic warning label, and those in the control group given no label.

Each participant was asked to choose between twenty sets of meals, each one with a meat version, a fish version, a vegetarian version and a vegan version. For example, one set gave participants the choice between a meat wellington, a fish wellington, a vegetarian wellington and a vegan wellington. The meat version in each of the 20 choices would have the warning label on it relevant to the group, except in the control group.

Afterwards, participants were shown an image of a burger with their relevant warning label. They were each assessed on whether they would buy, eat or recommend the meal, whether they would avoid said label or whether it was annoying, how credible they found it, whether they would approve its implementation through policy, and whether it aroused negative emotion in them.

Political implications

First and foremost, all of the labels did as the researchers had predicted and reduced the amount of times the meat option was chosen in all cases compared to the control group. When expressed as differences in proportions, the health warning labels reduced the meat meals chosen by 8.8%, climate labels by 7.4%, and pandemic labels by 10%.

However, while participants opposed introducing policy to implement the use of pandemic labels and health labels on meat products, they were neutral regarding climate labels. The mean for policy support, across all three labels, was under 50%.

Pandemic labels triggered the greatest level of negative emotional response, possibly, the researchers speculated, in conjunction with memories associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, which at the time of the study was very recent. Nevertheless, pandemic labels were considered the least credible out of the warning labels, contrary to previous studies on tobacco health warning labels where a direct correlation between credibility and negative emotional response was found.

The research suggests that if these labels were to be used on commercially available products, they might be effective at reducing meat meal choices​,” Jack P. Hughes, one of the researchers, told FoodNavigator. “However, the decision about whether to introduce these labels depends on government, policy makers, and businesses​.”

Sourced From: Appetite
'Impact of pictorial warning labels on meat meal selection: A randomised experimental study with UK meat consumers’
Published on: 1 November 2023
Doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2023.107026
Authors: J. P. Hughes, M. Weick, M. Vasiljevic

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