Beef consumption strong during COVID but dangers loom

Beef sales increased 27 percent during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is partly attributed to the comfort that consumers have with the meat. | File photo

A food retail analyst warns producers that they must pay attention to a 41 percent increase in plant-based protein sales

Meat case sales went up during the pandemic and beef was a solid contributor to the increase, says a food distribution and retail expert.

John F. T. Scott said meat sales in Canada were up 31 percent. Beef sales rose 27 percent, contributing 30 percent of meat case profitability, he said.

“We think that they went up partially because of the comfort the consumer had with that particular product,” Scott said during a presentation at the Canadian Beef Industry Conference.

Although many consumers began the pandemic with lack of cooking skills, they could cook a hamburger or a steak, he said. As well, through the last 18 months many of those who couldn’t cook have learned how.

The best performer in the “meat” case was plant-based protein, Scott said. It went up 41 percent in sales, although it is only four percent of the volume.

Scott said producers should be concerned and pay attention to that. Branding and communication are key to retaining customers and generating new ones.

Aside from plant-based protein, the products “rocketing” out of the meat case are antibiotic-free, hormone-free, he said.

“Don’t shoot A & W for their commercials. That’s where the consumer was going before, regardless,” Scott said.

Secondly, consumers want local and grass-fed beef.

“I have to tell you that the product in both of those categories — local grass-fed, antibiotic free — is just outpacing everything else in the meat counter. Think about that going forward.”

Scott said branding is essential for consumers to trust the products they are buying.

“I don’t know how many of you subscribe to the degree to which society is having difficulty with beef products at the present time, but I’m certainly concerned about it,” he said.

He used the example of an opinion piece in the Globe and Mail newspaper that raised issues about animal welfare, environmental impact and the consequences of cattle production. A rebuttal piece from Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef chair Anne Wasko was reduced to a small item in the letters section, he said.

“That’s what you’re up against folks,” he said, urging them to be active and get behind their spokespersons.

Scott added that consumers are sensitive to price increases right now because while prices are going up for many products, their wages are not.

Asked about how to explain the price disconnect between cattle and the wholesale and retail prices of beef, Scott said there is no disconnect. Rather, it’s about the margin on which retailers and food service operate.

“It may seem like a disconnect… but whatever we’re buying… whatever that margin is, is what they’ve got to work with. At every level we’ve seen dramatic increases in pricing,” he said. “That constant margin is where we’re at.”

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