Move to meatless meals will affect livestock producers

A grocery flyer in my daily newspaper a few days after New Year’s Day caused me to raise my eyebrows.

Featuring foods such as almond and coconut drinks, gluten-free pasta, and veggie protein meat replacement products, it was dedicated to vegetarian and organic foods, protein powders and vitamins.

But it did not come from a health-food store.

It was from Safeway/Sobeys, one of Canada’s biggest grocery chains. Perhaps the company was hoping to cash in on New Year’s resolutions to eat healthier, or maybe it sees a real shift in the Canadian diet.

I am not referring to trends like those mentioned in fashion and celebrity magazines that are all the rage and then disappear just as quickly.

I mean permanent shifts in lifestyle, similar to the move away from smoking or the way parents now manage their children’s playtime.

Faculty members at Dalhousie University and the University of Guelph definitely see a long-term trend establishing.

Their annual Canada’s Food Price Report released in early December forecasts the direction of food prices but it also looks at major issues and trends affecting the food business.

The issues include the new Canada Food Guide from the federal health department, the new trade agreement with the United States and Mexico and the legalization of cannabis, specifically the expected approval of edible cannabis products within the coming 12 months.

As for trends, it highlights what it calls the “protein wars” between existing sources and plant-based alternatives.

The report references a Dalhousie online survey conducted in September asking Canadians older than 18 about their attitudes toward meat. The sample size was 1,027 people and the margin of error was estimated at three percent 19 times out of 20.

The survey showed Canadians are still overwhelmingly meat eaters. It might not seem like it from the attention devoted to them, but the number of vegans and vegetarians is small.

But what surprised me in the survey was how many Canadians said they are open to the idea of reducing or eliminating meat from their diets.

Here are the key numbers.

Almost half reported eating meat daily and another forty percent ate it once or twice a week.

Only 2.3 percent said they never eat meat.

Meat producers also should be cheered by the pleasure many take in eating it.

Fifty-four percent said they somewhat or strongly agree with the statement, “to eat meat is one of the great pleasures in life.”

Seventy percent said they somewhat or strongly agreed with the statement, “nothing compares to a good piece of steak, chicken or pork.”

However, even with this strong attraction to meat, more than half said they are open to considering reducing their meat intake.

And when asked, “specifically, in the next six months do you intend to reduce your meat consumption?” 23.7 percent said they probably would and another 8.5 percent said they fully intend to reduce meat consumption.

That suggests one-third of the population is seriously thinking about reducing meat consumption in the near future.

There are many factors influencing them in this decision, including health concerns, environmental impact, animal welfare, the cost of meat, taste preferences and weight control.

The survey shows women and younger people are more influenced by these factors.

People often do not carry through with their intentions, but the final commitment is easier if there are attractive alternatives to ease the transition.

Food manufacturers and retailers are rushing to provide those alternatives. I refer you to that Sobeys/Safeway flyer I mentioned earlier.

I expect though that people won’t give up entirely on meat. The Dalhousie survey shows that meat holds a strong emotional and aesthetic attraction that will be hard to completely sever. The meat industry here can use that in its advertising to try to hang on to market share.

However, it will become ever easier to find enjoyable meatless meals, moving people from the “meat everyday” category to the “few times a week or month” category.

This has important implications for Canada’s meat producers. For decades the domestic per capita consumption of beef and pork has gradually eroded while chicken consumption has increased.

Even with the decline, Canadians are among the top meat eaters in the world. But the food report and survey I’ve cited here suggest the potential for that gradual erosion to speed up.

That would mean that to maintain production, the meat industry would have to redouble efforts on a strategy that has already shown success: export promotion.

Two-thirds of Canada’s pork production and about half of its beef and cattle are exported.

While many Canadians are rethinking their meat consumption, many millions in developing countries are hoping to eat more.

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