Food Freedom

Public Health Researchers Float Idea of Climate-Change Warnings on Menu Items

Warning diners that red meat is bad for the environment is yet another attempt to socially engineer food choices.


A study released last week suggests that fast-food menus that feature labels urging diners not to order red meat off those same menus due to the "climate impact" of those food items can help convince customers to swap out red meat for what the researchers argue are more climate-friendly foods—from fruits and vegetables to poultry and seafood. The study, published in Jama Network Open and led by researchers from Johns Hopkins University, concludes that "climate impact menu labels may be an effective strategy to promote more sustainable restaurant food choices and that labels highlighting high-climate impact items may be most effective."

The study's data comes from more than 5,000 Americans who took part in a nationwide online survey last year. Study participants were instructed to "imagine they were in a restaurant and about to order dinner" from an accurately priced sample menu containing a variety of choices, including hamburgers, chicken sandwiches, plant-based burgers, and salads. 

The study asked participants to "order" different foods after viewing one of three types of sample menus online. Outside of a control group, the study presented web users with choices that either disparaged the sustainability of red-meat dishes or touted the sustainability of dishes not containing red meat. Based on the results, which showed people who were more likely to avoid red meat if it had a red warning label and more likely to order other menu items if they featured a green health halo, the authors conclude that "climate impact menu labels [a]re effective" and "that labeling red meat items with negatively framed, red high-climate impact labels was more effective at increasing sustainable selections than labeling non-red meat items with positively framed, green low-climate impact labels."

The study has spurred some news outlets to suggest governments around the world may—or should—operationalize its findings.

"Policymakers have been debating how to get people to make less carbon-heavy food choices," the Guardian recounted in a recent report on the study, "In April, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report urged world leaders, especially those in developed countries, to support a transition to sustainable, healthy, low-emissions diets."

"Unfortunately, consumers have been resistant to change and many wish to continue eating meat," a report on the study laments.

Worse still, though the study itself does not suggest that it should be used to form the basis of any government policies, its lead author, Prof. Julia Wolfson of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told CNN last week that "legislation or regulation may be necessary" to force restaurants to add climate warnings to their menus.

Let's pump the brakes—for a couple of reasons.

Data from the study itself and, more generally, on the effectiveness of government-mandated menu labeling suggests the authors may wish to dial down their perception of the effectiveness of the labels they tested. For example, after completing their respective orders, the survey asked participants if they "notice[d] any labels" on the menu. As the study data reveal, only around 4 out of every 10 participants even noticed any climate-related labeling. While that's a low percentage, in the real world—in an actual fast-food restaurant setting rather than in an online survey—the percentage would likely be far lower. That's because, as I've explained time and again, study after study has shown that few people pay attention to mandated menu labels (except to choose which food or foods to order), and even fewer use that information.

The premise of the study itself also may rest on shaky ground. Some critics have pushed back against the notion that some chicken or seafood is more sustainable than all red meat. As the Guardian report on the study notes, "intensively produced chicken has been found to be damaging for the environment, as has some farmed and trawled fish." Others disagree with the very notion that red meat is an inherently unsustainable food. While it's become popular in recent years to argue that eating less red meat is better for the environment, that argument has received a good amount of pushback, with critics charging that swapping out meat for plants could be inefficient and ineffective, harm human health, and have unintended consequences for the developing world. 

Even if I were to accept arguments that eating less meat is better for the environment, the choice to eat meat (or not) ultimately is and should be an individual's to make. So it's not "unfortunate" that consumers "wish to continue eating meat," as posits. And that wish isn't a cry for government intervention, as Wolfson, the study's lead author, argues. Rather, it's a cry for freedom of choice.

If some restaurants competing in the marketplace care to attempt to skew their customers' choices away from meat and towards vegetarian and/or vegan foods, by all means, they should do so. But the jury is out on whether that would improve the sustainability of those restaurants. What's more, any restaurant that wants to make such a change should do so on its own accord, without the government's prompting, backing, or mandate.