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This paper aims to examine how graduate students at the University of Southern California (USC) feel about meat alternatives offered at fast food restaurants. Understanding this can help fast food restaurants better market meat alternatives and reduce meat consumption. A reduction in meat consumption could have a significant positive impact on the climate. It has been reported that, “animal agriculture is estimated to emit 14. 5% of total anthropogenic greenhouse gases and is the leading source of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the United States”. Furthermore, “livestock production (including transport of livestock and feed) accounts for nearly 80% of the agriculture sector’s emissions”. This topic was selected because effective marketing of meat alternatives can help increase sales, and consequently reduce sales of meat products. Some of the current tactics used to reduce meat consumption have fallen short.
Dagevos & Voordouw (2013) reported that “despite many reports and persistent messages about the environmental effects of meat consumption or problems with animal welfare in factory farming in recent decades, for many people, meat eating remains quite acceptable”. An understanding of what people like to eat from fast food restaurants, and clarity about their feelings towards meat alternatives can help direct marketing campaigns aimed at encouraging consumption of meat alternatives. A positive approach to sales of new products at fast food restaurants may have a greater potential impact than current messaging about environmental impacts of meat consumption and animal welfare. The questions this paper aims to answer are what kind of fast foods do graduate students like to eat and how open are graduate students to meat alternatives offered at the fast food restaurants? The goal of this study is to produce informative data about what this demographic like most at fast food restaurants and what their attitude is towards meat alternatives.
One focus group was conducted that lasted 10 minutes. The group moderator was a graduate student in the Communication Management program at Annenberg. Participants A total of five participants — one male and four females took part in the study. Participants ranged in age from 22 to 26 years and were all in their first year of graduate school at USC. Also, all of the students enjoyed eating fast food, and all of the students reported that they ate meat. Focus GroupThe focus group discussion consisted of two main questions. The first part focused on understanding what kind of fast food graduate students liked to eat. An example question was “what is your favorite thing to eat from fast food places?”. The second part focused on how open graduate students were to meat alternatives offered at fast food restaurants. An example question was “if a vegetarian option was offered, would you be open to trying it?”.
A total of five graduate students participated in the focus group. The majority (80%) were women. All participants were between the age of 22 and 26 and all were in their first year of graduate school at USC. All participants reported that they ate fast-food, and all reported that they ate meat. Three themes were identified: convenience, enjoyment of indulging in “guilty pleasures” and health consciousness. Overall, participants reported that they began eating more fast food once they started graduate school. How often the participants ate fast food per week varied. One participant explained, “I work on campus eight hours a day and have class at night, so what I can access is usually fast food like Chipotle and Chick Filet— places I can grab and go”. Another participant reported, “I always cook at home except on Monday when I have class every week I eat [Ono] Hawaiian BBQ”. Another respondent said, “I don’t really like eating fast food because of the health thing, but I notice since we started school I have been more susceptible to getting fast food on campus”. Several participants reported eating on the USC campus, which they classified as a form of fast food. The group members agreed that the convenience of fast food was one of the main reasons they consumed it. The favorite fast food restaurants reported by the group were Chick Filet, In-N-Out Burger, Ono Hawaiian BBQ, and Shake Shack.
A theme that arose was the feeling that eating fast food was akin to indulging a “guilty pleasure”, which was a part of the experience. One participant described how she tried to choose healthy options, but not on “exception days” when she ate things like ice cream. Another participant said, “fast food for me is the unhealthy, guilty pleasure that I want to enjoy”. When discussing vegetarian options, the majority of the participants (60%) reported that they were not interested. Of the participants who did expressed interest in trying vegetarian options, one explained, “I guess out of curiosity I would try it” but then clarified, “I think most people would fall into the category of enjoying fast food because it’s a guilty pleasure; that’s why I eat it anyways, like why would I choose the healthier option?”. The other participant who expressed an openness to vegetarian options was reluctant, explaining that she would only want a bite of the product being offered, rather than paying for a whole serving before knowing what she would think of it.
Another theme that arose was health consciousness. The moderator questions did not include anything about health, however the participants discussed health throughout the focus group, indicating they associate vegetarian options with healthy options. Interestingly, participants also expressed suspicion about the ingredients in meat alternatives, and were skeptical about whether the ingredients are, in fact, better for their health compared to meat. One participant explained, “there’s no guarantee that the veggie option is automatically the healthier option because usually it has the chemical additives to make it taste good”. Another participant asked, “with the healthier option like, what’s even in it?”. Skepticism around the health implications of meat alternatives was unanimous. Despite there being doubts around how healthy meat alternatives were, the idea of eating non-meat products was associated with them being a healthy option, and the idea of healthy alternatives was one of the reasons the participants were not as enthusiastic about meat alternatives. One participant expressed, “I’m already eating fast food, so I don’t want a veggie or healthier version”. Some participants explained that they trusted health food stores to have meat alternatives that were healthy, but not fast food restaurants. One commented, “if I’m going to do a vegan option I’m going to go to Trader Joes or Whole Foods and get a vegan option there”. Among the group, there was a consensus that the appeal of the fast food was the convenience of it, and the indulgence in having something unhealthy and delicious. There was also a general distrust about health benefits of vegetarian options offered at fast food restaurants.
The study revealed that these graduate students viewed meat alternatives offered at fast food restaurants as being unappealing. The data suggested that graduate students liked the convenience that fast food offered and enjoyed indulging in the pleasures of eating unhealthy food. Overall, there was a distrust about ingredients used in meat alternatives, and the health implications of those ingredients. Only some of the participants indicated that they would be open to trying meat alternatives. Participants alluded to the belief that eating meat was unhealthy, however, there were no comments about the other dangerous implications of meat consumption such as animal wellbeing and greenhouse emission given off by large scale factory farms. An increase in awareness around the harmful effects of the current levels of meat consumption may increase willingness to incorporate meat alternatives into what people order at fast food restaurants.
Further research is needed to identify effective strategy around this. Application of these findings could be used to guide effective marketing of meat alternatives. Offering samples of meat alternatives would allow consumers to try the product without having to commit to purchasing a full meal. Use of healthy ingredients in meat alternatives, and transparent advertising of those ingredients would increase trust in the product. If the ingredients in the meat alternatives are not healthy, marketing them as indulgent and pleasure producing, may increase sales. More research is needed to evaluate these kinds of marketing tactics. When the focus group began, the moderator did not establish a definition of how the researcher classified fast food. The focus group participants included food on the USC campus as fast food, which was not included in the moderator’s classification of large, multinational, fast food chains. This did not affect results of this focus group drastically, however, in the next focus group, the moderator should give parameters to the categorization of fast food restaurant. Subsequent studies should include more, similar size, focus groups. More participants would provide the researcher more data to analyze and draw effective conclusions from.
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