Market research reveals opportunity to educate U.S. beef consumers

Building on the public’s trust in farmers and ranchers key to communicating humane treatment of animals and increasing consumer confidence

Now more than ever, consumers are indicating they care about animal welfare in livestock production. However, the average consumer has little knowledge of beef production.

In the United States, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) conducted focus groups as part of its market research to understand what consumers believe about beef production. Participants who considered themselves well-informed on this topic were asked to explain the steps from pasture to plate, but the vast majority found this difficult.

“These people claimed that they’re knowledgeable and interested about beef production, and when we ask them in the room they can’t talk. They can’t actually explain anything that’s happening with the beef life cycle,” says Shawn Darcy, NCBA’s director of market research.

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During a session on consumer expectations of animal welfare at this year’s NCBA convention in San Antonio, Texas, Darcy presented this market research and statistics from the association’s Consumer Beef Tracker, a continuous survey. Through the latter, consumers were asked about their familiarity with beef production. Only 27 per cent felt they are familiar with how cattle are raised, which Darcy believes is likely inflated, based on the focus group findings.

This study also asked participants how they feel about beef overall, and, more specifically, how they feel about how cattle are raised. Forty per cent of consumers saw beef production as positive, 35 per cent were neutral and 25 per cent had a negative view. Consumers were asked whether they had concerns with beef production and what those are; more than 60 per cent stated they have a concern, the concentration of which are related to animal welfare.

More than 40 per cent of consumers surveyed always or often consider how food is grown or raised, while around 26 per cent sometimes consider this when deciding what to purchase.

“Consumers are thinking about these things, but they’re coming from a place of low familiarity,” says Darcy. “How do we communicate topics like the environment, animal welfare, antibiotic resistance, things like that, if consumers don’t even know how cattle are raised?”

“I think being able to articulate good animal welfare is sometimes a challenge,” says Dr. Lily Edwards-Callaway, assistant professor at Colorado State University. “People care about where their food comes from; they don’t have the same opportunities that we necessarily have. They ask a lot of questions. And I try to tell my students when I teach this, just because someone asks a question doesn’t mean they’re questioning what your answer’s going to be. They sincerely don’t know, so they really want to understand that a little bit more.”

The Beef Quality Assurance program

Darcy explained that the focus groups illustrated that many consumers believe the idyllic family farm represents a slim minority of U.S. beef production. On the other hand, many believe the beef industry primarily consists of “factory farms,” where business takes priority over proper treatment of animals, a misconception propagated by animal rights activists. For example, 43 per cent of consumers surveyed believe cattle live in confinement for their entire lives.

“It just shows you how far we do have to come with some consumer bases on what their thinking is,” he says.

When asked whether they trust that the beef industry openly shares information with the public, less than 40 per cent of consumers surveyed agreed with that statement. However, NCBA’s research shows that farmers and ranchers are among the most trustworthy stakeholders in agriculture to consumers.

“When we do focus groups, I can’t tell you how many times people, they’re just bashing the industry on all this inhumane treatment,” says Darcy. “Then we’ll show them a video or an article about this farm and ranch and everything that they’re doing right, and they just stop in their tracks and they’re like, ‘Well, I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about everyone else. Where can I buy their beef?’”

To communicate positive management practices with consumers and turn the producers considered a dying breed into the general representation, it’s vital to build upon this credibility.

“Farmers and ranchers are seen as very credible, and people want to hear from them, as well as the people involved, whether it’s veterinarians or nutritionists or universities that are doing all this research.”

In the aforementioned focus groups, NCBA shared information about the Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program with the participants. This certification process, supported by the National Beef Checkoff, allows producers to demonstrate safe, humane management practices.

The principles of the BQA program are “based on good management practices that are standard operating procedures designed to meet the United States food production system’s needs,” according to the BQA website. “BQA programming focuses on educating and training cattle producers, farm advisors and veterinarians on the issues in cattle food safety and quality. It also provides tools for verifying and documenting animal husbandry practices.”

While the program is co-ordinated by NCBA, implementation occurs at the state level. State beef councils and cattle associations use the BQA manual as the common framework to deliver programming designed to fit producers in that state. Producers can become certified through either in-person training or an online course. There is no third-party verification involved. Nor is there a set financial incentive for certified producers, although a Colorado State University study last year did find a premium for calves and feeder cattle sold through video auction markets.

After making the focus group participants aware of the BQA program, the majority responded positively to this information.

“We were able to change views of consumers by just introducing what this program was,” says Darcy.

A quantitative assessment of 1,000 consumers followed, with 70 per cent stating that learning of BQA’s existence increased their confidence in the safety of the beef they eat. Darcy noted that 67 per cent felt it increased their confidence in the humane treatment of the cattle, and 62 per cent felt that learning about BQA assured them that beef raised in this manner is available at their local grocery stores.

This knowledge can be useful for producers who direct market their beef as well as sell into the traditional supply chain. When customers voice concerns about the beef available in grocery stores not being as safe as that raised by this producer, the latter can point towards quality assurance programs.

“You could probably go back to a lot of the beef in the supply chain being represented by Beef Quality Assurance-certified producers such as yourself,” Darcy says, referencing the U.S. context. “I think that helps, relating back to how you’re just one member of this large industry… It’s not just a few hundred family farms, local farms like this that are out there. It’s hundreds of thousands across the country that are raising beef in this way.”

This research also revealed that for many consumers, just knowing that quality assurance programs exist was enough.

“They don’t really need a ton of detail, and we learned that almost the more detail we gave them, the more questions they had, the more things that kept coming up,” he says. “Some of them wanted to keep going and learn more, and that’s definitely a smaller subset of consumers.”

Ad boosts consumer confidence

As a case study on how to put these insights into practice, the Beef Check-off launched an ad campaign last fall and monitored consumer reaction. Using the “Beef: It’s What’s For Dinner” brand, the video was designed to educate the American public on the BQA program.

“It’s a 30-second video meant to engage consumers, but it’s not telling them a ton. It’s just highlighting what the program is,” says Darcy.

After watching this video, viewers surveyed on the Consumer Beef Tracker indicated an 18 per cent increase in positivity of their overall perception of the beef industry. “Most of that is coming from that more neutral, on-the-fence consumer,” says Darcy.

By monitoring where viewers used their mouse while watching the video, showing where their interest increased or decreased, they found that interest increased throughout the ad.

“Even at the end, when traditionally a lot of times we might see a little down-tick, with our ‘Beef: It’s What’s For Dinner’ branding that we have and the nostalgia behind that brand, it actually gets a big bump up for us. So that marrying of the Beef Quality Assurance message with that (brand) is doing really well,” he says, noting that scenes with open pastures and animals being treated well, as well as the BQA slogan, “The right way is the only way,” drove the viewers’ interest.

To cater to consumers who wanted more details about the program, the video directed them to the Beef: It’s What’s For Dinner website, where they can learn more about BQA and raising cattle in general.

“We are giving them that information and that transparency to go do that, but we’re not necessarily posting ‘bqa.org’ on Facebook for everyone to see,” says Darcy.

At the height of this campaign in October and November 2019, the consumer beef tracker saw a substantial increase in participants’ agreement on several topics, including that beef is produced in an environmentally friendly manner, is raised responsibly, that there is transparency around how their food was raised or grown, and that they can trust the people raising the animals.

About the author

Field editor

Piper Whelan

Piper Whelan is a field editor with Canadian Cattlemen. She grew up on a purebred, Maine-Anjou ranch near Irricana, Alta., and previously wrote for Top Stock, Western Horse Review, and various beef breed publications.

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