Meat quality concerns: which on-pack messages are most convincing?

The UK’s meat market could be flooded with cheaper produce as a result of a post-Brexit trade deal with the US, The Independent has reported in the beginning of February. If this happens, controversial products such as imported chlorinated chicken and beef with added hormones might make their way to British supermarket shelves.

Take chlorinated chicken in particular. Washing chicken in chlorine and other disinfectants to remove harmful bacteria has been banned by the European Union since 1997 over food safety concerns. This has stopped imports of US chicken meat, which is generally treated by this process. The BBC has commented in March last year that chlorine washing is not itself harmful but a concern exists that when it comes to meat, the practice allows poorer hygiene elsewhere in the production process. Conversely, chlorine-rinsed bagged salads are common in the UK as they are not found to pose the same threat.

Regardless of the level of awareness about these implications, we have found out that perceptions of chlorine-washed poultry is markedly negative. A split steer we ran in July last year showed a 15% difference in propensity to buy raw chicken as a result of the word ‘chlorinated’ added to the description:

A split-by-description steer is a blind test which shows a different description to each of two consumer subsets. In a situation where consumers are able to compare the descriptions side-by-side, the popularity of chlorinated chicken is likely to be even lower as attention is explicitly drawn to the issue.  However, it is highly unlikely that a product would be labelled as chlorine washed, making it difficult for consumers to distinguish between a range of options. UK manufacturers could therefore look to find an effective way to communicate that their poultry is not processed using this method, so that they can successfully compete with cheaper imports.

To solve this problem, it is best to firstly understand what consumers are looking for when buying raw meat (including poultry). We ran a multi-answer steer to a nationally representative (NatRep) sample so that the figures are weighted and representative of all UK adults of working age (18-65). The graph below is a ranking of six factors based on the percentage of votes each has collected:

Two factors stand out with over 40% of votes, ‘free range’ and ‘no harmful bacteria’. Free range chicken comes at a price, which might discourage a large proportion of consumers from buying it. In 2017 Farmdrop reported that free range birds account for just 5% of UK chicken production and, at an average price of £9.50, are around three times the price of a standard chicken.

Even when opting for a cheaper product, however, many people will be worried about what they perceive as a direct negative impact on their health. Packaging text needs to be able to put such worries to rest. We ran a series of four split-by-description steers, which aim to measure unconscious choices rather than stated preferences. The method gives confidence in determining what will actually make a difference at point of purchase. The ranking below is sourced from comparing all results:

Consumers hold high expectations for UK produced food, as confirmed by the top three proposed descriptors. Red Tractor is the UK’s largest food standards scheme, described on its website as covering animal welfare, food safety, traceability and environmental protection. While it covers the messages of the remaining two top claims, a risk exists that consumers do not recognise or trust the Red Tractor mark. For this reason we ran three Vykert steers, which are designed to capture strength of feeling towards given issues.

A Vykert has a scale with 15 steps, each assigned a value from -7, through 0, to +7. Our three steers featured a picture of a packaged raw chicken, each accompanied by one of the proposed three tags. To interpret the results, we examined the medians, and the extremes within the scale, in this case, ‘likely’ and ‘unlikely’. We did so as the remaining values were lower and evenly spread across the scale – a sign for some variability in responses on an overall polarizing issue. The table below compares the three sets of results:

A successful claim has to have a low median score and a high value for ‘unlikely’, due to the way the question is formulated. While ‘traceable’ and ‘product of UK farming’ produced somewhat similar results, ‘Red Tractor’ stood out as more convincing.

Our research has shown that UK origin is important to consumers when it comes to meat products. However, simply stating that a product is traceable and local might not be as convincing as providing an on-pack proof for related certification. According to YouGov data, cited by a Red Tractor press release, food safety hasn’t been a significant concern for UK consumers for a while but due to the changing political and economic landscape, related worries appear to have resurfaced. Going forward, certification such as the Red Tractor label would work best in reassuring consumers and competing with imported produce.