New Zealanders remain 'overwhelmingly omnivorous' despite cost concerns, survey finds

Stock image of beef mince
Nine out of 10 New Zealanders eat meat, although almost half of the population has reduced their consumption in response to health concerns and financial factors. Photo credit: Getty Images

Despite the ongoing cost of living crisis, meat is still on the menu for most New Zealanders, with new research finding Kiwis remain "overwhelmingly omnivorous".

An online survey, led by AgResearch and Lincoln University researchers, found more than nine out of 10 New Zealanders - 93 percent - eat meat, although almost half of the population has reduced their consumption in response to health concerns and financial factors. 

The study, which surveyed 1061 New Zealand consumers in December 2021, also determined that despite there being a "high awareness" of meat alternatives, there is still a "very low" level of uptake of these protein substitutes compared to what is reported in other countries. 

Overall, the researchers found that taste is the primary determinant when it comes to purchasing meat, with 71 percent of respondents rating taste as a "very important" factor. The second key consideration was the price at 55 percent, and third was the use-by-date at 51 percent. Less important considerations for consumers were no GM animal feed (36.5 percent); animal welfare certification (28.9 percent); or a smaller environmental footprint (16.9 percent).

The results found that chicken was the type of meat consumed most regularly by New Zealanders, accounting for about 33 percent of participants' meals within an average week. This was followed by beef (22 percent); fish (13 percent); pork (10 percent); lamb (8 percent); and processed meat (7 percent). Plant-based meat products, venison, game meat, and other varieties made up less than 2 percent of participants' weekly diets.

While nearly three quarters of the respondents said they'd heard of "meat-like" plant-based products, like Quorn, eight in 10 said they had never tried them, while less than 20 percent said they'd be willing to try cultured meat if it was on offer and at an affordable price point.

Over the past year, nearly half of the respondents (47 percent) said they had lowered their meat consumption, while the majority (69 percent) reported consuming less meat overall. Thirty-one percent said they only lowered their consumption of particular meat products.

"Lack of affordability and health concerns" are the key motivations for reducing meat intake, the research found - more so than climate-related issues or animal welfare. 

When asked to indicate the top three terms that they considered important when defining 'sustainability' in meat production, the respondents most commonly answered with 'animal welfare', 'environmental impact' and 'grass-fed', closely followed by 'carbon/GHG emissions', 'free range' and 'farming methods'. Between 17 and 24 percent indicated they were willing to pay a premium for meat products that were more environmentally friendly or prioritised animal welfare. 

AgResearch senior scientist and the study's co-author Dr Cameron Craigie said the results are not necessarily surprising given the tradition of meat-eating in Aotearoa and the value that is placed on farming as one of the world's biggest red meat exporters.

Affordability concerns are likely to have remained the key driver of reduced consumption, due to higher inflation since the survey was completed - meat, poultry and fish prices were up 9.5 percent on the Food Price Index in April 2023, compared to April 2022.

"Overall, the outlook for meat consumption and (the) meat industry in New Zealand is positive and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future," Dr Craigie said in a statement.

"The survey is a snapshot in time, but for us as researchers, it does help us focus on the research that addresses the issues that people care most about. Clearly taste is a key factor for meat eaters and that's why we are doing research to help producers maximise that.

"On the sustainability front, we know this is something consumers are concerned about, and we are working with farmers to help provide them tools and practices to reduce their environmental impact and meet targets around things like water quality and climate change."

AgResearch senior scientist Cameron Craigie
AgResearch senior scientist Cameron Craigie. Photo credit: Supplied

In November last year, an AgResearch study found that the carbon footprint for New Zealand's beef and lamb sector is among the lowest in the world, with a 30 percent reduction in absolute greenhouse gases from sheep and beef farming since 1990. 

New Zealand's on-farm footprint was found to be about half the average of other countries in the study, according to the research, as the animals here are farmed on pasture year-round - alternatively, the US or Europe rely on indoor animals and feed production. 

The adverse impacts on health associated with red meat consumption have been well-documented. Dr Frank Hu, chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, reiterated in 2020 that an accumulated body of evidence shows a clear link between high intake of red and processed meats and a higher risk for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and premature death. 

"The evidence shows that people with a relatively low intake have lower health risks," he said. "A general recommendation is that people should stick to no more than two to three servings per week. Instead of the main course, use red meat as a side dish. Consider red meat a luxury and not a staple food."