Flexitarians on the rise since COVID-19 struck

Most consumers continue to eat meat, but more of them are doing it less often as they focus on plant-based diets

The number of flexitarians, those who eat less meat than they used to and emphasize plant-based foods, has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In July, 16 percent of American consumers described themselves as flexitarian compared to 12 percent at the start of 2020. That’s an increase of 30 percent, as indicated in the Power of Meat study done by 210 Analytics, a research firm.

“The pandemic took an existing trend and turbocharged it,” said Lisa Keefe, editor of Meatingplace, a website and magazine focused on the North American meat industry.

Keefe was the first speaker at the National Farmed Animal Health and Welfare on-line presentations, which began Nov. 10.

She said she believes Canadian data would show the same trend, given that before the pandemic, 75 percent of Canadians said they were interested in moving toward plant-based meat substitutes.

Though Canadians and Americans are “solid carnivores,” meat consumption is gradually declining.

Flexitarians are people who eat meat three or four times a week in total, not just for dinner. In 2019, about five percent of Canadians were in this category, said Keefe.

Self-described flexitarians tend to be younger, tend to be women, tend to be urban and tend to be single or part of a couple with no children. Income was not a factor in the data, although Keefe said the current pandemic-induced recession would likely see people at lower income levels eliminate meat due to cost.

She cited data from the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity that indicated Canadians value the humane treatment of farm animals above any concern over having enough food to feed others.

In the middle of this year, 47 percent of people expressed concern over how livestock are raised. Among flexitarians, the figure was 62 percent.

“Remember how quickly the flexitarian category has grown since the beginning of the year,” said Keefe.

The pandemic also raised public awareness about meat processing, according to Canadian data.

“Consumers’ concerns about how companies treat their employees has soared. Coverage in April, May and June of the processing plants that were closing down because of clusters of COVID cases, the deaths of meat processing employees, have left an indelible impression on consumers who otherwise had no idea how meat products actually were made. Well, they now know more than they used to and they don’t like a lot of what they’ve learned.”

Though meat-processing companies and plants have made headway in making their workplaces safer, she believes the negative impressions formed in spring are here to stay. The pandemic may have strengthened public belief in the food supply chain in general, but the meat chain has suffered in the court of public opinion.

“It’s going to take some time and a lot of communication to try and rebuild that trust.”

Contrary to warnings about consumer attitudes toward meat, the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity recently released data showing that confidence in Canada’s food system in general is at an all-time high. It said 47 percent are confident in its direction, up 12 points over 2019 data.

The cost of food is the top concern, with 51 percent of those surveyed saying they have less money to spend on food because of the pandemic.

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