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T.S. Strickland headshot

Beef or Cow? Researchers Find the Way We Talk About Meat Matters


"If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian." Those words, uttered by Paul McCartney, embody a common belief among vegetarians and animal rights activists — that the greatest barrier to reducing meat consumption is the opacity of our supply chains.

Indeed, for anyone who's ever watched a PETA video, the impact of empathy on meat eating seems intuitively obvious.

Still, until recently, there was precious little empirical evidence to prove the point. Now, a group of researchers from Norway is moving the conversation forward.

In a study published this month in the journal Appetite, the researchers argue that the way meat is processed, labeled, and advertised makes it easier for consumers to dissociate their hamburger or steak from the animals they once were.

Overcoming the empathy gap

The scientists, working at the University of Oslo, performed a series of five different experiments among American and Norwegian consumers.

First, they examined the impact of different processing methods on consumer behavior (i.e., a slab of bacon versus a whole, suckling pig).

"Processed meat made participants less empathetic towards the slaughtered animal than unprocessed meat," wrote lead author Jonas Kunst. "When beheaded, a whole roasted pork evoked less empathy and disgust than when the head was present ... [which], in turn, made participants more willing to eat the roast and less willing to consider an alternative vegetarian dish."

The researchers observed similar responses when they presented consumers with meat advertisements that included images of living animals; described industrial meat production using terms such as "kill" or "slaughter," rather than euphemisms like "harvest;" and replaced terms like "beef" or "pork" with "cow" or "pig" on restaurant menus.

Temperatures are on the rise — but so is meat consumption

The findings could prove significant to global efforts to move consumers toward a more plant-based diet in response to rising global temperatures.

Less than a month ago, the United Nations released a troubling new report arguing that radical agricultural reform was needed to avoid pushing as many as 122 million more people into extreme poverty. In a prior report, the U.N. noted that as much as 15 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions originated from the livestock industry.

Despite such dire statistics, meat consumption is on the rise in the United States. Also in October, Dutch company Rabobank, which closely monitors agricultural trends, reported that per-capita meat consumption rose nearly 5 percent in 2015 — the steepest increase in 40 years — and was expected to increase by an average of 2.5 percent more per year through 2018.

The increase came after several years of declines, which many attributed to increased consumer concern about the environmental, health and ethical implications of meat consumption.

Now, that does not seem to be the case. Instead, it looks like consumers' movement away from meat had more to do with economics than ethics.

"There’s a roller-coaster effect here, and we are about to start an upswing," Will Sawyer, an animal protein analyst with Rabobank, told Vox recently. "... All those U.S. consumers that got priced out of the beef market are going to be able to come back to price level that they haven’t seen for five to six years."

With economic trends encouraging consumers to increase their meat consumption in the short term and the twin threat of global warming and population growth making it increasingly vital to cut our consumption in the long term, advocates and regulators would be wise to consider how they can exploit this "carnivore's paradox" to drive more sustainable behavior.

Image credit: Flickr/John Henderson

T.S. Strickland headshot

T.S. Strickland is the founder of Neon Tangerine — a branding, strategy and experience shop focused on food, tech and social good. His writing has appeared in Impact Alpha, Entrepreneur, the Food Rush and elsewhere.

Read more stories by T.S. Strickland