Beef remains the world’s premium meat protein but there’s also “a clear and present danger” on its plate, says a renowned professor and speaker on global food issues.
Dr. David Hughes told participants in the virtual Canadian Beef Industry Conference Aug. 11 that the beef sector must respond to criticisms about its environmental footprint and human health impact if it is to capitalize on the increasing global demand for protein.
“Increasingly consumers want to know, is the product climate friendly? Is it environmentally friendly? Is it sustainable, whatever that might mean?
“The fact of the matter is that eco-active consumers are starting to increasingly modify their purchases on the basis of these citizen issues,” said Hughes.
COVID-19 has done no favours to certain parts of the industry, he added. Virus outbreaks and deaths of packing plant workers have shaken confidence in food safety and worker health.
“We’re going to have to manage this because there will be perception out there in consumer land that meat is a problem in particularly intensive meat production and processing.”
Hamburger sales have done well during the pandemic as people sought comfort food. That’s also why many convenience stores saw an uptick in business. The beef industry should ask itself whether it has products in such stores, said Hughes.
But one particular sector saw a major boom that is likely to continue.
“Far and away the biggest one was this move, an accelerated move, towards online grocery shopping. Actually Canada in history has been slow at this, but what seems to be the case in Canada is that online grocery is a rising star on your ecommerce horizon, but right across the world we’ve seen that,” said Hughes.
“We have to look at our product and say ‘how does that affect meat purchasing?’”
The pandemic-driven recession is likely to affect meat prices but as a premium product, beef shouldn’t start playing in the low-cost protein arena, he advised.
“Red meat, and you’re red meat, should keep out of the way of the global battle between intensively produced chicken and intensively produced fish.
“That’s the big, big battle globally at the low price end of the meat market. All I’m saying is keep well away from that. The countries that are competing there are Vietnam and Brazil, and that’s a messy business down at the bottom end of the meat market.”
Hughes also noted the rise in plant proteins and so-called fake meat, led by Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. Every meat company is also active in plant-based proteins but Hughes said growing demand for protein globally means beef can grow its market.
However, he also predicted that consumer uptake for lab-grown meat could capture 15 to 20 percent of the protein market share in 10 or 20 years if it can be produced at scale for a competitive price.
The beef industry can also deliver on renewed consumer interest in the source of their food and in buying locally. One of the keys, Hughes said, will be adjectives.
“I think margins on nouns are very small. Where you get the margin is through adjectives. The trick is to find adjectives that consumers value and are willing to pay more for.”
Free range, grass fed, slow grown, rare breed, omega-three enriched, dry aged and even happy can all be attached to beef as a way to spark customer interest.
“Beef is the world’s premium meat protein and it’s got a compelling Canadian story. Shout it out,” he said.