The Market's Fine Print

The Good Old Days When Lent Was Temporary

John Harrington
By  John Harrington , DTN Livestock Analyst
"Meatlessness" seems to have become the cause celebre of the 21st century. (DTN/The Progressive Farmer photo by Jim Patrico; DTN photo illustration by Scott Kemper)

As a rule, theology and marketing tend to stick to their own corners. Yet there are times when these disparate interests haphazardly swing away in the middle of the ring. Accordingly, with Easter just three weeks away and wholesale meat prices relatively stable, I think Pope Francis and Donald Trump would agree upon at least one thing: The Lenten season is not as bearish for beef and pork as it once was.

When I first cut my teeth on market analysis in the late 1970s, the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Holy Saturday simultaneously represented a soulful period of self-denial on one hand and a good time to be short meat futures on the other. Forty years later, the spiritual quest of the former still promises to yield great dividends.

Not so much the latter.

The truth is that the meatless threat tied to traditional religion has been on the wane for nearly a century. The dramatic shift in regular church participation stands as a general barometer of such a development. For example, a Gallup poll found that church attendance among American Catholics has dropped from 75% to 45% since 1955. While the Protestant pilgrimage into modernity looks no more stellar in this regard, I suspect, speaking as a bedside Presbyterian, that the reformed record of Lenten sacrifice was not as shining to begin with.

For better or worse, our increasingly secular culture has freed the would-be penitent from any severe obligation to resist the temptation of demonic steaks and satanic burgers. Come to think of it, the declining impact of Lent on the meat trade may help explain why spring price rallies don't seem as explosive as they used to be. Could it be that spring demand once burned hotter coming in the wake of a more widespread Lenten boycott?

But if the liturgical calendar of traditional Christianity has somehow become less hostile to meat consumption, a host of pagan zealots have stormed into the breach with hotter tar and sharper feathers. Indeed, the loud meatless chorus of animal rightists, environmentalists, and health police makes erstwhile piety and righteousness seem darn right charitable.

Sometimes I think "meatlessness" has become the cause celebre of the 21st century, the favorite issue of every mindless actor, know-it-all musician, and fleeting blip of notoriety that ambles down the 15-minute runway of fame. But my bias and defensiveness is obvious. It would be wrong and irresponsible to so casually dismiss the entire crowd of meat detractors, many of whom are thoughtful and significantly credentialed.

Furthermore, these guys are potentially much more dangerous than the pilgrims of Lent, whose meat aversion is seldom more than symbolic and temporary. They advocate giving up meat for good, a life-long sacrifice that will somehow eliminate the endangered species list, pave the way to your 150th birthday, and generally save planet Earth.

Judging by recent election results, outlandish promises "trump" practical realities every time.

Given these worries, it's not surprising that a recent National Public Radio (NPR) article on changing meat consumption caught my eye, a piece that tried to measure the effectiveness of anti-meat forces. Though evidence gathered represented nothing but a small snapshot, the implications of the data were nonetheless surprising.

In 2012, NPR teamed up with Truven Health Analytics to survey Americans about their changing eating habits. This initial poll found that 8.6% of the 3,000 Americans surveyed said that during a typical week, they ate no meat (defined as all meat products except poultry and fish). Some 56% ate meat one to four times a week, and 31% ate it five or more time a week. Additionally, 39% of the respondents back then told us that they were eating less meat than they had three years before.

Their reasons for cutting back? Concern about the health effects was the top reason, followed by the cost of meat.

In December 2015, NPR and Truven polled another random selection of 3,000 Americans (via phone, cellphone and the Internet), asking the same questions. But this time they included one new question: Has the recent publicity linking processed meats to an increased risk of cancer caused you to change your eating habits?

Even though about 30% of respondents said "yes" to the new question, the changes in general habits were very subtle: 7.4% of respondents indicated they eat no meat during a typical week, a slight decrease from 2012; 51% percent said they eat meat one to four times a week; and 38% said they eat it five or more times a week.

Notably, there was a slight drop in the number of people who said they were eating less meat than they had three years ago (from 39%, down to 32%). In a nutshell, surveyors concluded Americans' meat-eating habits haven't shifted much, despite the ongoing barrage of anti-meat rhetoric and outcry.

Although three years and a small sample of 3,000 consumers is not a great deal to hang your hat on, I'll bet you a basket of Easter candy that these numbers are somewhat reliable in what they suggest about the limited effectiveness of anti-meat cheerleaders. But how is it possible for consumers to resist the relentless drumbeat of meatless forces?

In two ways.

First, anyone thinking outside the meat demand box of TCP (taste, convenience, price) is probably thinking too much. While most of us like to be perceived as discerning shoppers armed with the day's most fashionable sensibilities, 95% of our path to the checkout stand is plowed by TCP.

I always think of Billy Crystal's classic parody of Fernando Lamas: "It is better to look marvelous than feel marvelous." In other words, better to look marvelous shopping than fill up you cart with the inedible.

Second, the anti-meat mafia too often becomes its own worst enemy when it saddles contradictory data and rides it into the ground. Specifically, I'm referring to the volatile and whiplash nature of so many food science studies. One minute fat is public enemy No. 1, the next it's out on bail. One minute salt is just short of rat poison, the next it's seriously short in the average diet. This revolving door of assessments and recommendations spins like Rubio's campaign managers with too much coffee on board.

Such silly randomness is like sending the food police out in riot gear made of Jell-O.

Unfortunately, neither of these points is likely to still the threat of meatless crusaders for long. Though I'm mildly cheered by their frustration suggested by the NPR survey, it would be naive not to fear the movement's dogged persistence.

At least Lent will be over soon, releasing a certain number of meat lovers to sin again.

John Harrington can be reached at feelofthemarket@yahoo.com

Follow John Harrington on Twitter @feelofthemarket

(AG/CZ)

John Harrington