by Marion Nestle
Oct 28 2011

Surprise! Consumers don’t trust the meat industry

According to MeatingPlace, the Center for Food Integrity asked more than 2,000 respondents to rank a field of 8 possible priorities for the  meat industry.  The rankings of meat industry respondents were quite different from those of consumers.

Meat industry respondents ranked profitability as #2 and humane treatment of farm animals as #8.

In contrast, consumer respondents ranked profitability way down the list as #7 but humane treatment of farm animals as #4.

These disconnects, say industry observers, are serious and “feed an overall distrust of commercial ag operations.”  The survey report explains:

There is an inverse relationship between the perception of shared values and priorities for commercial farms. Consumers fear that commercial farms will put profit ahead of principle and therefore cut corners when it comes to other priority issues. As farms continue to change in size and scale we have to overcome that bias by  effectively demonstrating our commitment to the
values and priorities of consumers.

Maybe the message is getting out there?

  • Speaking of meat: Is what’s with this “meat glue”? Is there anything to be concerned about?

    Here’s the video that I saw:


  • Ellen

    I couldn’t find the research, either at Meating Place, or at CFI’s website (though I did find their summary of 2011 research, apparently based on web-polling (?!) of a little over 2000 people, which I would assume is the same pool they’re using for this priority-ranking research). Where did you find the specific consumer/industry rankings you’re quoting here?

    The weird thing about this is that if there were up to 8 possible things to put in priority order, consumers didn’t put “profitability” last– why on earth should consumers care about the profitability of ANY industry? Our goal is usually high quality and low prices– both of which would tend to drive down profitability. For instance, I’m not concerned at all about how profitable teaching and research is, as long as the quality’s high. I’m sure you put a higher priority on your being able to pay your bills than I do, just as people in the meat industry are naturally more concerned about their own profits than I am. This doesn’t mean that I don’t trust the academic industry… although when folks in the academic industry don’t link to the research they’re referencing, I do get a little suspicious.

  • Mone

    I would also like to see the specific data of the report. I’m interested in knowing what the other priorities on the list are. If consumers ranked animal care as #4, what did they rank #1-3? Is it possible to get this information? Thank you!

  • Hi… I’ve been a member of Meating Place for over 3 years and have never seen links to anything unflattering to the industry. Ever.

    The study done by Food Integrity is seen in the blue panel on the right hand side of their home page:
    It’s a link to a pdf called “The 2011 Consumer Trust Research booklet”.

  • The survey, available as Bea Elliott noted in her comment above, was of consumers only and did not include any survey of industry respondents. From the survey, we have no idea how the industry might rank their own priorities.

    Consumers were first asked what their own priorities are. “Humane treatment of farm animals” ranked 5th, behind safe food, affordable food, nutritious food and food grown in ways that reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides (in that order). That most people rank the welfare of other animals lower on the scale than they rank food safety, nutrition, affordability and sustainability ought to come as no surprise. Most people eat other animals after all.

    Next, consumers were also asked to rank what they think the priorities of “family farmers” are compared to how they think “family farmers” themselves would rank those priorities. Consumers were also asked to do the same with respect to “commercial farmers.” In other words, consumers attitudes towards farmers and the food supply is what is being measured.

    What the survey shows is that, generally, consumers think that farmers are more concerned with productivity and profitability than those consumers think farmers should be. However, consumers also think that both sorts of farmers would rank affordable, safe and nutritious food in the top five of each the farmers own rankings, just as those consumers think they should.

    I think a good case can be made that the study also highlights a more general pro-small-business mindset in America. Otherwise, what accounts for the fact the consumers seem to think that “commercial farms” ought to rank profitability and productivity 7th and 8th on the list while thinking that “family farms” ought to rank them 4th and 6th? I guess consumers think that “family farmers” are entitled to make a profit while “commercial farmers” aren’t.

    In any case, and as highlighted by the quote excerpted in the original post, the real purpose of the study is to help the industry market itself to a (presumably) more informed customer base.

  • Ellen

    Thanks, Bea! Looks like the rankings Dr. Nestle’s referring to are on page 8 of that booklet. Unless she’s referring to something else, it’s pretty clear that she’s misreading it, though.

    There were no “meat industry respondents” in this survery.

    The survey asked consumers to rank the priorites they themselves had for the meat industry, and then asked those same consumers to rank the priorites that they believed the meat industry had for itself– which is not at all what Dr. Nestle describes above.

    Interestingly, the surveyed consumers felt that “affordable food” should be a higher priority for commercial farmers than “safe food.” Since Dr. Nestle apparently sees this survey as reliable (I don’t– it’s sponsors seem like interested parties, and if it was indeed a web-survey, that sounds kinda sketchy to me), I wonder if it will lead her to re-think her calls for beefing up food safety regulations: the survey she’s just praised indicates that most consumers would oppose that if it made food less affordable.

  • Michael Bulger

    Ellen, the “safe food” ranked higher than “affordable food” as a priority goal driving consumer food choices.

    Consumers ranked “safe food” over “affordable food” when it came to family farmers.

    You’re referring to commercial farm priorities. Perhaps consumers want commercial farmers to be able to provide safe food at an affordable price. Consumers might be expecting more well-off commercial farmers to sacrifice profit to provide an affordable product that won’t kill or sicken the consumer. Imagine that. (The consumers seem to have, as they ranked farm profitability near the bottom.)

  • Ellen

    Yours is a fair point, Michael, and I wasn’t entirely serious about questioning Dr. Nestle’s commitment to increasing the power of the regulatory bureaucracy.

    I’ve already indicated why I don’t think this survey is very useful, and why I think it’s entirely rational for consumers not to prioritze the profitability of producers. If it was phrased as “increase profits for their pension fund investors,” it’s possible they’d reconsider, but even then, I wouldn’t expect (or want! consumers having different desires than producers is what makes the market possible!) consumers to rank profits as highly as industry. Not that industry was polled in this survey.

    To me, the more worrying issue in this post is Dr. Nestle’s misrepresentation of the research. I started reading her on The Atlantic’s website, where I was fascinated by a jaw-dropping post ( in which she wildly misrepresented a study that had shown that school breakfast participants ate more junk food at breakfast than other kids. I don’t fact-check everything she posts by a long shot, but her willingness to misrepresent research (or, more charitably, her failure at comprehension?) is beginning to look like a pattern.

    Moreover, why is she treating a survey whose sponsors all seem to be the type of “Big Food” lobbyists she usually rails against as reliable?

  • Michael Bulger

    Actually, if you’d go back and look at Table III.9 of the SBP study, and look at what the children ate at school, you will see that participants had lower average %kcal from LNED. So, at school, the SBP participants ate less junk-food. The problem seems to have come when they ate at home.

    (It also appears that donuts and danishes in the breakfast program were the main culprit at school.. seems like an easy fix. Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act?)

    On a final note, I’d agree with you that the study isn’t particularly reliable. It is interesting, though. More so, coming from industry.

  • Aggie

    As an elderly farmer, I have been going to and listening to Farm BIll talks since the 1980’s. In the 1980’s and even up until the late 1990’s consumer groups I met stated that they wanted cheap food, affordable food. No one ever seemed to give safety a thought or mention it (at least not that I observed in the political sausage making back rooms). It was simply taken for granted that US food is safe.
    The most recent episode of demand for cheap food was in NYC in the late 1990’s when dairy farmers attempted to use collective bargaining to raise the price of milk they were paid in NY. NYC politicians openly shouted at the farmers that corporate farms were the wave of the future and NYC residents needed cheap milk and cheap meat. Focus groups were hired by groups opposing the farmers to develop catch phrases like “milk tax on the poor” “unAmerican largess” “milk cartel”, etc.
    Beaten down, the farmers left NYC, drove home to Upstate NY, many went out of business. Some grew in size, others tried to get more milk out of their cows with growth hormones, farmers did anything and everything to survive the philosophy of the cheapest possible food. With the development of huge multi-thousand cow farms worked by immigrant laborers, and consumer concerns regarding safety, the pendulum is swinging.
    What do the statistics regarding “family farms” as opposed to “commercial farms” mean? Did this study give any indication as to what is considered a family farm? Family farms do have to be commercial to survive (try NY land taxes on for size sometime). Of course, we ALL want safe food. How can farmers of all sizes better talk with consumers about what it is that they do to make food safe? There is very little dialog between farmers and consumers.

  • Anthro

    I don’t think Marion meant this post to be a scholarly take on anything, but rather an amusing insight. Her published works are extremely well-documented and speak to her standard of scholarship.

    I see no “pattern” of “failure of comprehension”–those are strong words not well-supported by two questionable examples from the vast amount of material posted, published and referenced by Ms. Nelstle.

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  • Ellen

    Michael, Table III.9 indicates that the total percentage kcal from all LNED foods for School Breakfast participants (I’m assuming that’s what Dr. Nestle meant by “kids who eat breakfast” in the original post) was 23.5% in elementary school kids and 28.1% in secondary school kids. For non-participants, it was 22.3% for elementary school kids and 27.9 for secondary school kids. That in itself refutes her assertion that the study shows that “kids who eat breakfast eat less junk food.”

    But even if you look at the portion you indicated, elementary school School Breakfast participants got 20.1% of their calories eaten at school from junk food, while elementary school non-participants got 19.9% of their calories eaten at school from junk food. In secondary school, that changes and School Breakfast participants got 26.1% of their school-calories from junk food while non-participants got 30.4% of their school calories from junk food. But even the secondary school School Breakfast participants ate more junk food calories total (as opposed to percentage-wise) than their non-participant counterparts.

    “Kids who eat breakfast eat less junk food” still seems like a wild misrepresentation of that study. If I’ve misinterpreted the table, please clear it up for me.

    And Anthro, I agree that it’s a serious charge– that’s why I hedged with “beginnning to look like” rather than just saying it’s a pattern. It’s only two examples. But they are weird examples coming from someone whose job heavily involves interpreting research for the public. I wouldn’t call it a pattern, but it is worrying. If Michael can show me where I’m off on reading that school breakfast study, I’ll happily admit that it looks much less like a pattern of misrepresentation, and more like a single slip-up in reading.

  • Michael Bulger


    For each group, find the mean percentage for elementary and secondary schools combined. At school, participants ate less junk food.

    (20.1 + 26.1)/2 > (19.9 + 30.4)/2

    Like I said, the problem seems to be what they eat outside of school. This is not particularly surprising given the associations between lower-incomes, unhealthy food environments, price barriers, and other factors.

  • Ellen

    That School Breakfast participants got a smaller percentage of their junk food calories at school (while they still got more junk food calories total at school and also a higher percentage of junk food calories per day total) is not at all the same as Dr. Nestle’s claim that the study proved that “kids who eat breakfast eat less junk food.”

    If the problem is what they eat outside of school, forcing them to participate in the school breakfast program (which was what she was using the study to advocate) wouldn’t affect that.

    I agree that the problem is largely what kids eat outside of school (although the “donuts and danishes” you mention, and the school breakfasts I remember, where the most palatable items were pre-packaged, can’t help). But controlling kids’ food intake outside of school is a much trickier area for government intervention. I’d actually love to discuss what some of those “other factors” driving that outside consumption among lower-income kids (and adults) are, but we’re far enough off topic already.

    I wouldn’t say Dr. Nestle has demonstrated a clear pattern of misrepresenting research based on the two examples I’ve cited, but I would definitely say that she’s demonstrated that at least in some cases, you can learn much more reading the data itself than reading her assessment of that data.

  • Hmm it looks like your website ate my first comment (it
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