Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vol. 1, No. 4, September 2015 Publish Date: Jun. 17, 2015 Pages: 275-282

Effects of Experimental Conditions on Consumer Perceptions of Ground Beef: An Interdisciplinary Study

Paulette Hebert1, *, Gregory Clare1, Yeasun Chung2, Lisa Slevitch2, Jerrold Leong2

1Department of Design, Housing and Merchandising, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, USA

2School of Hotel and Restaurant Administration, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, USA


An interdisciplinary university team conducted an experiential study regarding consumers’ perceptions of uncooked red meat (beef) displayed under different lighting treatments to mutually benefit students, older adults and industry. Three evaluation stations with different lighting treatments and identical meat packages simulated grocery store conditions. 275 participants were randomly assigned to stations at three sites. Subjects perceived meat as safer under light emitting diodes (LED) than fluorescent. Older participants perceived meat as safer than did younger participants. Younger participants perceived meat products under all three lights similarly and perceived meat as less safe than did older adults. Findings were distributed to participants; non-participants; multi-disciplinary university students; retirement centers; restaurants; and grocery stores. Participants and researcher subsample was interviewed. Transcripts were content-analyzed using a computer-aided text program. Lighting was the most frequently used word followed by temperature and safety. Students indicated participation was personally meaningful and raised awareness of food safety, storage and display issues.


Interdisciplinary, Light, Meat, Food, Safety, Temperature, Light Emitting Diodes (LED), Retail

1. Introduction

In the current study, an interdisciplinary university research team, composed of faculty members from a College of Human Sciences at a South Central U.S. University, developed an experiential study regarding consumers’ perceptions of uncooked red meat under different lighting sources in a simulated lighting display environment. Participants in the study included undergraduate and graduate students and older adult residents of nearby retirement communities. The main objective of this research was to conduct a project that mutually benefited students, older adults, and to provide needed information for the beef industry. The project is aimed at educating students and other involved constituencies such as beef producers and beef wholesalers and retailers. The project is important because it involved a diverse group of Oklahoma participants that are faced with emerging food safety, consumer perceptions and product selection issues. The effects of new lighting technologies on consumer perceptions of beef appearance and the perceived temperatures that represent a safe product are the focus of this study. Researchers believe that the perceived meat color ranges and safe meat temperatures are critical to optimal consumer selection and also contribute to consumer health. The beef industry is federally inspected and strives to provide the optimal conditions for the processing and consumer selection of beef.

Beef cattle remains an important industry in the U.S. but it has gradually declined over the last several years. However, beef is still offered on most restaurant menus (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2012). Oklahoma has long been known as a cattle ranching state. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Cattle Inventory Report, Oklahoma is ranked fourth in U.S. sales of cattle. About one half of Oklahoma’s agriculture economy is attributed to cattle (Oklahoma Farm Bureau, 2015; U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2015). Job opportunities are paramount to Oklahomans and one of its major sources of employment is directly or indirectly related to the beef industry. Beef is the "state’s largest agriculture segment" (Oklahoma Beef Council, 2015). Oklahoma beef farms and ranches employ over 55,000 workers (Oklahoma Beef Council, 2015; Oklahoma State University, 2015).

Oklahoma meat processing companies also provide meat products to casual dining and fast food restaurants. In 2011, high-end steakhouse chains reported increased sales while other types of restaurants’ sales were down (Martell, 2011). Some steak restaurants display uncooked steaks in illuminated, refrigerated cases for patrons’ evaluation and selection. According to USDA's Economic Research Service, the annual U.S. average per capita consumption of beef was 54.8 pounds in 2012. The recession's effect since late 2008 has been limited in the U.S. beef market since beef is a staple food product. Instead of giving up beef, consumers have switched from steaks to lower priced products such as hamburgers (IBISWorld, 2013).

An assortment of beef products is displayed for consumers’ consideration in restaurants, grocery stores, and butcher shops and the quantity and quality of meat case illumination varies. For the past few decades, incandescent and fluorescent lighting had been utilized but now more energy-efficient and long-lived light emitting diode (LED) sources are available. Relatively new-to-the-market LEDs can vary in their apparent visual warmth (more reddish) or coolness (more bluish) and their associated color rendering of products. Consumers viewing meat packages under different light sources may associate their visual perceptions with freshness, appeal, and food safety or lack thereof. Little scholarly work has been published regarding minorities, older adults, or other consumers’ perceptions regarding beef under different lighting conditions.

Signs et al. (2011) suggested that lower socio-economic status (SES) people groups may experience greater barriers to a safe food supply due to predominant use of smaller retail markets as compared to high SES consumers who primarily access commercial grocery chain stores. In addition, one study showed consumer perceptions of food safety differed for deli-meats as compared to restaurant foods with selection dependent on statistical differences include age and ethnicity of consumers.

Some of Oklahoma’s highly diverse population, relative to SES and ethnicities, suffer from limited access to healthy food choices at regionally available food retailers. A meta-analysis by Patil et al. (2005) identified important differences among consumer groups based on gender, SES, and regions of the country in which consumers live. Creating consistent food safety messages across diverse populations is a high priority for improving public health.

The U.S. Census also reports that from 2008-2012, 16.6% of Oklahomans lived below the poverty level. Oklahoma exceeds the 14.9% national average of persons living below the poverty level (U.S. Census Bureau, 2015). The current study was conducted within and near Stillwater, Oklahoma. 30.8% of Stillwater, Oklahoma residents lived below the poverty level during the same time frame, more than twice the national average (U.S. Census Bureau, 2015).

Employment opportunities and job income are extremely important in Oklahoma communities and the State’s competitive meat, grocery store, restaurant and associated industries may contribute to some employee-residents’ escape from the grasp of poverty. A study by Lynch et al. (2003) found that based on reported health code violations, food safety knowledge among restaurant managers in Oklahoma was lacking and more food safety risk prevention training was needed related to proper handling temperature, pest control, and personal hygiene.

Beyond Oklahoma, the current research project also has national implications. The U.S. beef industry employs more than one million persons (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2012). The meatpacking industry purportedly employs undocumented aliens as 25% of their workers and "…90% of beef plant employees are hourly workers and of those a large majority are minorities and immigrants…" (Meat Industry Network, 2007).

Nationally, consumer awareness of food safety issues has been heightened. Widely publicized foodborne illness incidents, include the Salmonella outbreak in St. Paul, Minnesota, which spurred a national tomato recall (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2008). Wide-scale recalls may force vegetable producers out-of-business. Proactive consumer education about ways to avoid foodborne illness from at-risk products is critical. Mead et al. (1999) estimated that foodborne pathogens, account for 76 million illnesses and 5,000 deaths in the United States annually (Mead et al., 1999). In addition, it is estimated that between 24 and 81 million cases of foodborne diarrhea incidents occur in the United States each year and cost between $5 and $17 billion (Wagner, 2008).

Lighting also contributes to the perception of products (Illuminating Engineering Society of North America, 2001; Rea, 2000). Consumers may be subtly or overtly influenced by the in-store illumination of beef products prior to purchase as they attempt to gauge freshness and food safety via visual appearance clues.

The researchers in the current study anticipated that some lighting technologies might mask or enhance the appearance of meat as it is perceived by the consumers. Product appearance (red color) is thought to influence purchase intentions under lighting sources such as incandescent light (Barbut, 2002). Food safety, especially for highly perishable consumables, e.g., beef, may also be linked to improper storage at temperatures in the danger zone. Storing beef at temperatures higher than 40 ˚F is not recommended, while the preferred storage temperature is significantly lower. Food safety experts prefer chilled meat stored at temperatures of 28˚F to 32˚F for up to three days of retail shelf-life. Typically, ground beef is packaged in a traditional "S2" meat tray, lined with an absorbent pad and covered with plastic film. This assembly is then heat-sealed. This method of packaging does not inhibit the potential discoloration of meat products, so ambient air in packages will still allow the meat to be discolored over time (Food and Agriculture Organization, 2007).

Food retailers, including local, independent, self-operated grocery stores, butcher shops and restaurants desire to maintain safe meat displays. The proper specification of new lighting technology attributes (Color Rendering Index, Color Temperature, lumens, etc.), for displays located in these retail applications may be informed by this study. Moreover, the interdisciplinary student participants who aspire to join these and the related engineering and design communities, may become more informed consumers and competitive if they are furnished with findings from this study.

2. Methods

As part of a larger study, three evaluation stations with three different lighting treatments (same light level; (3) different light bulbs: Cool White LED and Warm White LED (variables) and (1) fluorescent (control) with virtually identical beef packages were utilized to simulate grocery store conditions. Refer to Figure 1 for view of an evaluation station. Participants were randomly assigned to only one beef evaluation station, each with a particular lighting treatment. The researchers placed the ground beef packages on iced trays. During the study period, researchers monitored the temperature and light level of the meat hourly with thermometers and digital light meters respectively to ensure maintenance of safe temperatures and consistent quantity of light. Refer to Figure 2 for light meter monitoring at evaluation station.

Figure 1. Evaluation station with one lighting treatment.

Figure 2. Monitoring light level on iced meat package with hand-held meter.

Figure 3. College student participating in study.

The experimental physical conditions were controlled; ice packs were replaced when the internal temperature of the packaged meats began to approach the 40˚ F safety threshold. Virtually identical raw ground meat packages were used during the experimental observation period. Researchers additionally monitored the changes in meat color over time, throughout the experiment.

The influences of meat temperature and associated appearance changes on consumer perceptions were also explored as participants’ surveys were time-coded. This quantitative and qualitative study engaged participants, in and around Stillwater, Oklahoma in experiential lighting research. This "portable" study methodology utilized inexpensive, hand held instruments and was conducted at the participants three respective sites, one university and two older adult communities. Participants evaluated uncooked red meat (ground meat) and associated meat packaging under different emerging lighting sources by means of observation. Refer to Figure 3 for participant evaluation. Participants completed pre- and post- observation questionnaires which queried participants regarding their perceptions of beef appearance, safety of beef, nutritional value of beef and willingness-to-buy.

Institutional Research Board (IRB) approval was granted for this research project and also for the interview of participating students subsequent to the completion of the research study. IRB approval also allowed for "incentives" for student participants enrolled in university courses, extra credit in their respective courses for this activity.

A brief summary of the research project and key findings from the surveys was developed. The summary was distributed to research participants, enrollees of interdisciplinary courses, area retirement centers, local restaurants and grocery store proprietors.

Critical to the current reporting, a few weeks after the initial study was completed, a non-random subsample of the participants and researchers were individually interviewed regarding their experiences, "take-away" messages, and whether their awareness or behaviors had changed after their participation in the study. Participants’ verbal reflections were audio recorded digitally and written transcripts from the audio recordings were produced. Using a computer-aided text analysis program, CATPAC, the interview transcripts were content-analyzed. CATPAC provides "precise, Objective Text Analysis" (Woelfel, 1998). Researchers sought to categorize participants’ reflections and to determine the participants’ benefits.

3. Results

A total of 275 diverse subjects participated in the experimental study. The overwhelming majority (230, 83%) were 30 years old or younger, a few (9, 4%) were between 31 and 50 years old and 36 (12%) were 61 years old, or older. Forty four (16%) males and 231 (84%) females participated. The overwhelming majority (222, 80%) were White. Minority participation included: Asians (22, 8%), Native Americans (12, 4%), African Americans (9, 2%), and Hispanics (5, 2%). The younger participants were traditional and non-traditional students from eight different undergraduate and graduate courses in three majors and the older participants were retirement center residents.

The results of the study showed that, in general, participants’ perceptions of meat safety appeared to be influenced by the lighting type utilized under the test conditions. Subjects perceived meat as "safer" under cool color and warm color LEDs as compared to fluorescent lighting. As the field-measured temperature of the meat packages increased slightly, many subjects perceived the meat as "less safe" and these unsafe meat perceptions were most prevalent under fluorescent lighting. In general, older participants perceived meat as safer than did younger participants under all lighting conditions and at all meat temperatures. Older adults perceived the meat illuminated by Warm White LEDs as the safest by a considerable margin. Older adults perceived the meat illuminated by fluorescent as the least safe by a considerable margin. Cool White LED illuminated meat was roughly in-between. On the other hand, younger participants perceived the meat illuminated by all three light sources relatively similarly. Younger participants perceived the meat illuminated by all three light sources as considerably less safe than did the older adults.

Table 1. Result of Content Analysis: Frequency of Key Words.

Key Words Frequency Percentage
Lighting 117 24.5
Temperature 45 9.4
Safety 43 9.0
Attention 22 4.6
Information 19 4.0
Color 18 3.8
Packaging 18 3.8
Community 16 3.3
Service-learning 16 3.3
Interesting 14 2.9
Select 14 2.9
Knowledge 13 2.7
Display 12 2.5
Expiration date 12 2.5
Appearance 11 2.3
Help 11 2.3
Presentation 11 2.3
Research 11 2.3
Awareness 9 1.9
Faculty 9 1.9
Read 9 1.9
Decision 8 1.7
Label (weight, composition, preparation) 8 1.7
Nutrition label 6 1.3
Researcher 6 1.3

Although the meat packages were displayed in a temperature-controlled environment to aid in safety and preservation, at all three sites, the meat still did exhibit perceptible discoloration over the period of the study. Reflective interviews were performed with a sub-sample of 13 study participants. The top key words and phrases revealed by the content analysis of the interviews are presented in Table 1. Lighting (or light) was the most frequently used word followed by temperature, safety, attention, information, color, packaging, community, service learning, interesting, select, knowledge, display, expiration date, appearance, help, presentation, research, awareness, faculty, read, decision, label(s), nutritional label(s), and researchers.

Participants reflected on how lighting would affect their purchase intention and behavior in grocery stores or restaurants and how different kinds of lights would benefits community members such as independent grocery store owners, restaurateurs, meat marketers, consumers, interior designers, facility managers, retailors, students, faculty, and researchers. Most participants also said that the previous study prompted their thoughts and increased awareness of storing temperatures, nutritional information, or other factors affecting the quality and safety of foods. Figure 4 shows the dendrogram produced by CATPAC from the interview transcripts. The dendrogram graphically displays the relationship patterns between key words, reveals how words are grouped, and indicates how strong the words are related by darkening the areas to the right of words. Words occurring close together in the text are closely located in the dendrogram. The height of the shadowing to the right of the key words indicates the level of closeness. The content analysis revealed five major themes of their reflection upon the experience and impacts of the study, including: Built Environment, Packaging & Labeling, Service Learning, Research Engagement, and Safety. The number of arrows (<) shown in Figure 4, for example, Appearance, at the right of each word entry suggests the strength of the word relationships and indicates how words are clustered together.

Figure 4. Content Analysis Thematic Dendogram.

Result of Content Analysis: Reflection Themes Related To Learning Experience

The first category, Built Environment, is comprised of four key words related to visual display: Appearance, Presentation, Color, and Display. Examples of respondent’s comments that demonstrate this category are as follows:

"Change feeling and affect color, choosing meat by color presentation. Lighting is helpful."

"I look for packing, type of meat, label, fresh looking, color, expiration dates… visual, best by dates."

The second category, Packaging and Labeling, consists of the six key words or phrases:

Decision, Select, Label, Read, Nutrition Labels, and Packaging. Examples of comments follow:

"I will read nutrition label more carefully now."

"I realize the lighting and packaging interact. Both of them affect consumer decisions."

"The light level of the store can lead them to a wrong decision; the customers can get to know how to choose."

The third category, Service Learning consists of five key words or phrases: Awareness, Community, Help, Information, and Service Learning. Examples of comments follow:

"There are many opportunities in Oklahoma to provide citizens and small businesses with important information that could greatly improve their lives and livelihoods."

"Service learning means cooperative learning that provides a deliverable back to the community."

The fourth category, Research Engagement, consists of the five key words: Faculty, Researchers, Interesting, Research, and Knowledge. Examples of comments follow:.

"The methodology…is interesting to me…"

"It is interdisciplinary. That’s why it can be interesting for these whole groups, different area groups."

"…students learning by participation in an engaging research project. It was an interdisciplinary project and involved undergraduate students, graduate students and faculty."

The last category, Safety, includes five key words or phrases regarding the participants-interviewees’ new awareness of safety and related concerns after participation in the study, Attention, Expiration date,

Lighting, Safety, and Temperature. Examples of comments follow:

"I’ll definitely pay attention on the thermometer there."

"It does matter to me because I think…that these things go hand-in-hand …lighting…food safety"

All of the students were currently enrolled in courses taught by the researchers. Many students indicated that participation in this service learning research experience was personally meaningful. Many student indicated that this experience raised their awareness of food safety, food storage and food display issues.

4. Discussion and Conclusions

Percentages of minority participation by some races/ethnicities in this research study, (Native Americans (4%) and Asians (8%)) slightly exceeded the percentages of these minorities found in the Stillwater population (Native Americans (3.9%) and Asians (5.6%)) and greatly exceeded the 1.2% national average population of Native Americans. Further studies are needed which utilize larger, more diverse samples.

The inherent oxidation induced changes in the color of the packaged meat over time apparently influenced the respondent’s perceptions of the attractiveness of the meat product at different time intervals, regardless of light source treatment. The perceived diminishment of  bright red coloration, which is initially apparent in fresh meat products, may have been the deciding factor as to the consumers’ perceived level of freshness, desirability and food safety.

Independent grocers in the local community, multi-disciplinary university students and older adult communities were provided a summary of the results of the study. This strategy was an effective approach training consumers about ways to consider retail meat displays and reduce the risk from foodborne illness.

Importantly, study participants were given the opportunity to discuss the findings and request more details. Some study participants were interviewed and indicated their previous participation in the study made them more aware of packaging, labeling and meat displays when they returned to their regular grocery shopping tasks. This new awareness reportedly influenced participants’ meat selections and purchases after the study. Interviewees indicated they found displayed meat bright red, attractive and appealing in some stores they visited after participating in the study. Interviewees also reported paying more attention to nutritional information and labeling within the newly visited stores. They now noticed the type of packaging used for meats, and how the meat display lighting influenced the "eye appeal" of products.

The researchers did not specifically ask participants about their opinions regarding lighting sources, store displays, building systems, etc. However, some participants, especially those enrolled in disciplines supplying  some course content in engineering, lighting, building design and management, food safety, etc., may have been somewhat pre-disposed to consider and therefore comment on those aspects.

Interviewees indicated they welcomed the opportunity for the service learning as out-of-class, experiential research engagement. This experience made them "more accountable in different ways" and they "learned new things". They reflected that the dissemination of the research project findings helped participants and consumers to learn about lighting and safety issues but also aided other community members such as restaurateurs, grocery store managers and interior designers to determine options to ensure produce appeal and food safety.

4.1. Benefits of This Activity to Participants Included

Participatory learning was achieved due to the uniqueness and experiential nature of this "real-world" research project; results were uncontrived, there were no textbook answers since this was an exploratory study; benefits to participants included a greater awareness of food safety and nutritional information; participants were exposed to interdisciplinary issues (engineering and design, food safety, nutrition, marketing, and merchandising), interdisciplinary researchers, and participants hailed from different majors; and students received extra credit in current courses as incentive to participate.

4.2. Potential Long Term Benefits to Meat Industry Include

An understanding of consumer perceptions of beef under emerging lighting sources may assist the "triple bottom line" 1. people, 2. prosperity and 3. planet (or in other words: 1. needs of consumers and employees, 2. consumers’ willingness to buy, meat industry’s financial strength and company growth, and 3. emerging lighting technology utilization to save energy). Understanding the effects of packaging on consumer perceptions of meat may influence the triple bottom line.

4.3. Potential Long Term Benefits to Lighting, Building and and Associated Industries Include

An understanding how emerging lighting technologies affect consumers’ awareness of food safety and nutrition, perception of beef’s appearance and  willingness-to-buy could influence meat case, stores’ and restaurants’ lighting and HVAC system designs; understanding consumers’ expectations as to wholesomeness of meat products as influenced by the perceived color of the meat product may influence in-store presentations and designs; An exploration of how the temperature of beef affects consumers’ awareness of food safety could influence meat case, stores’ and restaurants’ lighting and HVAC system designs.

4.4. Potential Long Term Benefits to Society Include

At a time when consumer awareness of food safety issues has been heightened by the media this study fills a need to gather diverse consumer perceptions of food displayed under  emerging lighting technologies; this study may have implications for other types of food products and building systems, building components and restaurant and store designs; emerging lighting sources generally have high efficacies (produce more lumens per watt which means they produce more light for the same amount of energy consumed). Prior to this innovative study, few experiential consumer studies have been conducted with emerging lighting technologies and food products. Many meat cases utilize older lighting technologies - linear fluorescent or incandescent sources. The use of emerging light sources will save energy and help the meat industry to become more sustainable; marginalized persons and minorities in Oklahoma and elsewhere will benefit from a robust beef industry which can provide jobs; consumers benefit from healthy beef industry practices; communities of informed consumers will benefit from this study as they more confidently select ingredients with food safety in mind.

5. Limitations

The researchers found it challenging to enlist the participation of older adults in the study. The older adults were not given any incentives for participation as compared to University student participants who were given course extra credit. The sample for this study was relatively small and geocentric to a relatively small town in Oklahoma although some student participants did hail from out-of-state. It was beyond the scope of this study to explore the ethics of meat-loving participants versus vegetarians. The humane treatment of animals or the potential effects of the beef industry on global warming were also not addressed.


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