COVID downturn not expected to hurt bison in long term

Sylvain Charlebois has always been upbeat about bison, and COVID-19 hasn’t changed his mind.

Speaking online to the Canadian Bison Association convention Dec. 5, the director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University said bison meat should continue to be in demand despite the market downturn during the pandemic.

He pointed to Nielsen grocery store data that shows bison in third place in the specialty meats category in Canada at $3.3 million in sales, behind duck, at $19 million, and horse meat, which is popular in Eastern Canada, at $4.2 million.

“Goat meat demand grew 160 percent,” Charlebois told the producers. “But the No. 1 meat that has grown the most in retail in Canada is bison at 197 percent.”

Despite challenges, he said bison is gaining popularity among consumers, likely because of its sustainability.

COVID-19 has pushed people more toward food autonomy and getting as close to the land as possible — witness a huge increase in gardening.

“Bison is a pretty darn good ambassador to making our food more authentic,” he said.

Charlebois said the economic downturn as a result of COVID could mean people choose cheaper foods.

“This is probably where bison meat is vulnerable, because bison is a premium product,” he said. “We’re seeing it right now in beef.”

The situation could get worse before it gets better for two reasons: people are out of work and 2021 is likely to serve up a fiscal sandwich.

“Food prices are going up,” he said. “We are leaving this era of cheap food right now in Canada.”

While Canadians spent about 9.5 percent of their disposable income on food in 2019, this year it will end up at more than 10 percent and could be 12 to 13 percent by the end of 2022 as government deficits and debt mount, he said.

“At some point we’re going to have to have hard discussions about taxes and so we are expecting that disposable income to be reduced.”

On the bright side, people are cooking more at home and there is an opportunity to get bison on more plates.

Charlebois said processing is one of the key pieces missing in Canada’s bison supply chain.

“The market is telling you we like bison meat but I’m not sure the architecture is good.”

He believes there is recognition particularly among provinces that slaughter and processing capacity are problems in Canada.

“We’ve lost 22,000 jobs in food manufacturing in the last eight years,” he said. “We need these jobs back… you can produce all the bison you want with great quality but if you don’t control that centrepiece of processing you’re vulnerable,” said Charlebois.

He suggested the industry consider how to re-position its product, perhaps through branding to make it more accessible and top of mind. Getting bison meat into meal kits, complete with instructions on how to cook it, is one option.

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