Meat on the menu: pitfalls and possibilities

There is nothing like a juicy piece of meat, many consumers would claim, only to immediately express their meat-related concerns about food safety, the environment, and health. No other food item triggers as many or as complex associations. What does it entail for the meat industry that consumers have such differing perceptions of meat?

Meat and meat products enjoy a unique position among food items when it comes to stimulating debate and interest both in the media and among consumers. It is the food safety scandals related to meat that are remembered the longest. The production of meat is the area of food production that receives the most attention in regard to environmental protection and food safety. Meat continues to play a key dietary role and has alternately been perceived as being healthy and unhealthy and then healthy again. The latest nutritional recommendations are the last in the long line of factors that influence consumers’ relationship with meat.

Consumers’ multifaceted perception of meat makes it challenging to come up with sound strategies for how to develop and market meat products. A useful point of departure is to examine which important factors underpin consumers’ attitudes to meat:

Meat has traditionally enjoyed a strong position. Meat was a scarce good that was reserved for the wealthy or the strong, or for consumption on special occasions. This might be one of the reasons why the sense of tradition ­– with all its positive associations – is more important for meat than for any other product. At the same time, however, it is a challenge that meat is so bound to tradition, because it makes it more difficult to be creative and suggest radical innovations. Tradition entails for example that the product should be seen as being natural and little processed, or little tampered with, as many consumers put it.

However, products that are perceived as traditional may in fact be highly processed, if the product is known. In that case the processing is perceived as something safe and secure, because it has always been done that way. The challenge for the industry is to preserve the very qualities that make the product natural or traditional in the eyes of the consumers. Such qualities may relate to appearance, taste, name, or origin.

One example that shows that traditional products can be modified in an acceptable way is the use of new technology to reduce the salt content of spekeskinke (a traditional cured ham) without reducing the consumers’ enjoyment of the ham. A motivational factor in this case is that the product thereby becomes healthier.

In contrast to traditional products, new and innovative products are associated with uncertainty and unfamiliarity. For meat and meat products, unfamiliarity generates greater scepticism than for other products. People are more interested in meat products than other food products because of the associations to living creatures. This makes meat particularly vulnerable to external factors that might negatively affect consumers’ attitudes.

Research has shown that innovations that are based on known products, such as for example new meat cuts that can be used in traditional ways, are well-received by consumers. Technology that can identify such cuts does not modify the meat in any way, which is crucial for consumer acceptance. An example of an innovation that consumers enjoy is that new slicing patterns have enabled the brisket’s infraspinatus muscle to become available as a highly tender beef.

Conversely, if the processes used to create new products entail the addition of new ingredients to the product, for example through marination or injection, this is considered to be unacceptable. Consumers use words such as “invasive” and “manipulative”, and they express uncertainty and a feeling of being deceived. The major news story this fall concerning the marination of fish, and which also involved the marination of meat products, clearly shows how vulnerable a product’s reputation can be. When consumers are asked of their opinion on a new product or a new technology, many such innovations are rejected because the consumers have no real conception of what they are being asked about; in such a case it is safer for the consumers to reply that the innovation is something they do not want.

Confidence and openness are essential words in the meat industry. Consumer confidence is particularly vulnerable to incidents that undermine food safety. Everything is fine as long as nothing happens, because consumers trust that someone is in control (i.e., the authorities). When a food safety scandal becomes public, consumers have their worst preconceptions confirmed and react negatively. For the industry this means that consumers do not perceive food safety as an advantage but as the absence of risk. Openness is the best means to establish credibility and rebuild confidence. Confidence can also be created by cooperating with institutions that enjoy a high level of consumer confidence, such as consumer advocacy organizations and certain governmental agencies.

Knowledge of how meat and meat production affect consumers’ lives is ever-changing, and this represents a major challenge for communication and strategic planning. The meat industry may use trends that show that innovation and health are important for consumers, at the same time as innovative production methods can help the industry to gain credibility and the trust of the public.

This article was previously published in the trade journal Kjøttbransjen

Consumer and sensory sciences   Food and health   Food safety and quality   Raw materials and process optimisation  

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