Consumers order less beef when fast food restaurants disclose climate change impact, study finds

The typical fast food cheeseburger is becoming less popular as consumers become more aware of the climate effects of meat production. (Getty Images)
The typical fast food cheeseburger is becoming less popular as consumers become more aware of the climate effects of meat production. (Getty Images)

When fast food restaurants disclose the climate change impact of menu items, customers place orders less harmful to the environment, a recent study concluded.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins University found placing “high climate impact” labels next to hamburgers caused orders of non-beef alternatives such as veggie burgers to increase by 23% compared to a control group. They also found that placing "low climate impact” next to dishes with a lower carbon footprint, such as salads and chicken sandwiches, increased orders of those items by 10%.

“These results suggest that menu labeling, particularly labels warning that an item has high climate impact, can be an effective strategy for encouraging more sustainable food choices in a fast food setting,” the study’s lead author, Julia Wolfson, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said last Thursday in a press release.

The study was conducted online between March 30 and April 13, 2022. More than 5,000 participants were shown a sample menu resembling a fast food menu and asked to choose one item for dinner. One group was shown menus with labels for only “high climate impact” meals, one with only “low climate impact” labels, and one with no labels at all. The findings were published online on Dec. 27, 2022, in the JAMA Network Open, a publication of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Fast food menu
A customer scrutizes a fast food menu. (Getty Images)

A 2021 study in the journal Nature Food estimated that food production is responsible for 35% of global greenhouse emissions and that animal-based foods are responsible for almost twice the emissions as plant-based foods — 57% of the food carbon footprint comes from animals, versus 29% from plants.

Every aspect of food production, including the razing of forests to create farmland, the operation of farming machinery, fertilizer production and the spraying and transportation of food products contributes to climate change. However, meat is especially emissions-heavy and beef is the most emissions-intensive. It alone accounts for one-quarter of agricultural emissions. That’s because growing grains to feed them to animals is much less efficient than growing them for direct human consumption, and grazing animals such as cows and sheep require a lot of land. Cows also produce large amounts of methane — an especially powerful greenhouse gas in the short-term — as a byproduct of their digestion.

“Shifting current dietary patterns toward more sustainable diets with lower amounts of red meat consumed could reduce diet-related [greenhouse gas emissions] by up to 55%,” the Johns Hopkins researchers noted in the journal article.

Hereford cattle
Cows produce large amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. (Getty Images)

Whereas other sources of emissions, such as energy production, heating and transportation, can be made more sustainable by switching from burning fossil fuels to using cleanly generated electricity, it is not as yet clear how consuming beef can be made climate-friendly. Last year, New Zealand’s government proposed a “burp tax,” on animal emissions, which would use revenue from a tax on methane released by cows and sheep to develop means of reducing their emissions such as burp-catching masks.

Some fast food chains have begun to note the greenhouse gas emissions of items on their menus. In 2020, Just Salad added carbon footprints for each item on its menu in 2020 and Panera Bread began calling its lower-carbon foods “climate friendly.”

In April, after the British government required large restaurants to put calorie counts on their menus, Wahaca, a U.K. chain of Mexican restaurants, decided to add carbon footprints as well.

The disclosures “help [consumers] realize that they do actually have quite a lot of power at their fingertips,” Wahaca co-founder Thomasina Miers told the BBC last November.

“Food choices are political,” Miers added. “If we begin to realize this and start voting with our mouths, then we have a lot of power as a consumer.”