Protein choices controlled by environmental impact, price point and health considerations
Writer’s Note: I asked for volunteers from my circle of friends and acquaintances to have a conversation with me about their food choices. I was looking for people who are the main grocery/food decision makers in their households and I was looking for people removed from production agriculture. This was not an opportunity for me to “educate” them about the information guiding their decisions that may be out of line with my own decisions and research I’m familiar with. This was certainly not an opportunity for me to change their minds or promote different decisions. This was an amazing opportunity for me to hear from consumers about the choices they make and the information they use to make those decisions. This was a conversation about the most personal decisions people make every day — what they put in their bodies. I appreciate our readers’ extension of respect for their decisions and the information that guides them and look forward to hearing your take aways from my conversations.
Talk show host Ellen Degeneres took time on her daytime show to encourage her viewers to “be neat and eat less meat,” a few moments on air that were met with rebuttals from a number of individuals and groups. Comments appeared on social media, amidst discussions and arguments about the current state of the beef industry, low prices and who bears the blame.
Away from the unrest within the industry, Colorado consumers like Patricia Billinger and Christy Ledgerwood are Front Range consumers. Both women grew up in the Castle Rock area and, now in their early 40s, live in Denver and Monument, respectively.
Ledgerwood, a nurse who said she saw the results of what she called poor life and healthcare choices while working in cardiac intensive care, is married and has two elementary-aged children. Her husband and children are vegetarians, giving her a unique perspective. Ledgerwood does eat meat though she respects her children’s request to not eat it in front of them. Her husband has chosen a vegetarian diet off and on through their marriage, influenced by documentaries about agriculture. They have chosen to purchase grassfed, locally raised meats in the past to get away from what she calls industrial farming. The family does enjoy dairy and eggs.
Her average meat consumption is one to two times per week, typically chicken on a salad. Having recently hit the 50 pounds lost milestone in her journey to better health, Ledgerwood is participating in a nutrition program and she did say it includes beef as part of the plan.
Her interest in conserving water and protecting the environment play a role in choosing chicken over beef, she said, as well as being conscious of methane production. Though she recognizes the negative connotations many of her Front Range peers associate with oil and gas production, she said she doubts they understand the importance of oil and gas to the state’s economy though she does.
Ledgerwood said she recognizes that being a part of rural America is ingrained in those who take pride in their rural roots and lives.
“I think there are a lot of hurt feelings and feelings to be hurt in the argument because it hits very close to home for so many people,” she said. “There is a lot of opportunity for growth in market share that once you get over the ‘this is personal, you’re doing this to me’ mindset, there’s that potential out there to capitalize on but definitely it’s a shift in culture and identity for a huge portion of America that identifies as ag or identifies as rural or identifies as farming.”
TAKE EMOTION OUT
If emotion were able to be excluded, she said a higher level of conversation could take place.
Ledgerwood followed The Fence Post’s coverage of Colorado Gov. Jared Polis’ comments about the Impossible Whopper and said his message was lost but admits the beef industry’s response appeared to be angry and defensive, though understandable she said it wasn’t likely a positive reflection of the industry to consumers. She said for people who are shying away from meat, moves by the ag industry to veil transparency are damaging. She cited the banning of video cameras at feedlots as something that breeds suspicion.
“The way to have trust is through transparency and I think there’s a lot of mistrust that has been built by these documentaries that are out there,” she said.
Conversely, she said she questions messages from trade organizations, knowing protection of their respective industry is their job. Knowing the group has an angle, she said, makes trusting the message difficult.
“What I would like to see is independent voices asking for support of farmers and ranchers because they’re a huge part of our economy,” she said. “They are the driving force of the Colorado economy and they are disenfranchised by Denver/Boulder suburbia and they are our economy.”
It doesn’t serve consumers well, she said, to implode the Colorado ag industry but that isn’t the dialogue she hears. She is interested in supporting producers as they grow and adapt to current consumers’ needs and wants.
With a healthcare background, Ledgerwood said she questions the trend of marketing protein from animals who have never received antibiotics. Knowing meat is antibiotic free at harvest, she said it is humane to treat sick animals if antibiotics are the proper course of treatment.
“If my kid has an infection, I’m going to treat it,” she said. “I’m not going to let her suffer. There’s so much confusion about the vocabulary that’s out there and I think there’s a lot of manipulation on all sides.”
Confusing labels, she said, are a source of frustration, playing on what she said is people’s lack of engagement. She said she recognizes there is a large percentage of families in America who are struggling just to get by.
“There are so many people who just want to be able to feed their kids,” she said. “There is so much of a hunger issue and there is so much quality out there beyond a dollar burger.”
Ledgerwood said she supports programs like one out of state she is familiar with that allows a food bank to receive bruised produce for distribution. The program fights hunger and food waste, two things she recognizes as major issues.
Ledgerwood said her diet regularly includes plant-based proteins because she likes it and said she has the impression it carries a smaller footprint on the environment. However, she reads labels to ensure that the protein content is high.
“Just because it’s fake meat, doesn’t mean it’s good for you,” she said.
She said she finds lab-produced meat interesting but admits it “grosses her out a little” and questions how cost effective it can be in large scale production. She said she does not need plant-based options to look, taste, feel, and smell like meat, especially with the questions surrounding the soy leghemoglobin, added to Impossible Burgers to impart a bloody appearance.
“I’m not trying to substitute for beef,” she said. “I’m trying to get protein and use it in recipes that are palatable and taste good.”
HEATH AND PRICE
Patricia Billinger said her food choices are the result of her cost-conscious values and her desire to be healthy and supportive of environmental health. Billinger, who works as a public information officer, and her husband both work full time, making convenience a weeknight consideration, though they eat few pre-packaged foods, preferring to make quick meals from scratch. She said she often consumes chicken for the health benefits and the smaller environmental footprint. Like Ledgerwood, she is conscious of her weight and health and works to maintain them through diet and exercise. Red meat is on the menu about every 10 days and is beef, buffalo, or lamb. The week often begins with fish and evolves, by week’s end, into leftovers and vegetarian dishes as the weekly grocery store haul is consumed. Ground beef or buffalo, lamb kabobs, and steaks are all favorites, though she admits choosing a good steak at the meat cooler can be intimidating. Sale items and Costco finds also appeal to her, allowing her to take advantage of lower prices and build a menu around the item.
“I try to eat less meat because of the environmental impact, the price, and the health but I’m not ever going to give up dairy,” she said.
Her concerns about the environmental impact of meat production center around total energy usage to produce protein including water, land, and feed consumed. She said she also tries to purchase humanely raised but said it’s difficult to know exactly the definition behind the label. Billinger previously worked for the American Red Cross and was dispatched to the aftermath of a tornado. She still recalls the sights and smells of a chicken farm that had sustained serious damage in the storm and had experienced livestock losses, an experience that shaped her decisions as a consumer and her impression of what she calls industrial-level farming. Living in Argentina also influenced her preference for grass fed beef, though beef of a similar quality here she said is more expensive and difficult to justify for a cost-conscious consumer.
Like Ledgerwood, she eats plant-based proteins but said she carefully selects them, knowing lean meat is often a better option for her as she works to maintain her weight loss. She said the plant-based products are often high in protein but are also high in carbohydrates, making some consumers opt for other proteins. Though she said her interest is piqued by lab-produced protein, there is an “inherently creepy factor” to it. She said she tried a fake meat product that was marketed to imitate beef and said she didn’t care for the vegetable made to taste like and be bloody like beef.
“I’m not their demographic,” she said. “If I’m going to have a vegetarian burger, I would rather have a portobello mushroom burger than an Impossible Burger.”
She said the trend toward vegetarian and vegan choices is generational, with her generation having grown up eating and enjoying meat and younger generations being more likely to move away from meat. She said she recognizes the challenges of keeping Colorado’s cattle-heavy economy booming as consumer preferences change over time.
Billinger, who studied journalism in college, said she carefully selects her sources of research and information, depending upon vetted sources. She said the beef industry’s responses to criticism have been well played by the public relations voices involved. She said the points and questions have been reasonable and fair, including how meat is defined in labels. If anything could be better addressed by the industry, she said it is the concerns of millennials who see climate change as an existential threat.
Sara Place is a foremost expert on sustainability as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s senior director of Sustainable Beef Production Research. She said different plant-based products certainly have different footprints but support of the beef industry is an investment in the ecosystems, wildlife, and the environment that are made better through cattle production.
She said the addition of other proteins can be seen by the industry as an affront but is often an addition rather than a replacement for traditional proteins. Younger generations are also, she said, more likely to try the products though she said she hasn’t seen a sharp rise in the number of vegetarians or vegans.
Place said all of plant and animal agriculture, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, is responsible only for 9 percent of all U.S. emissions. She said a study several years ago found that if the entire country were vegan and livestock production ended completely, the greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by 2.6 percent.
Food, though, remains a personal choice and is a way to exercise some control over factors important to individuals, whether that is climate change or weight loss and, she said, gives people something they can act upon.
“That’s our challenge as the beef industry,” she said. “We have to give people a reason to believe that when they’re buying beef, they’re supporting good environmental outcomes and should feel good about that.” ❖
— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (970) 392-4410.