Consumers explore beef alternatives

North American consumers are starting to notice price in-creases at the meat counter.

Meat prices in the United States jumped 8.4 percent in April from the previous year, while meat prices in Canada are likely to go up by five to six percent this year.

Given that meat prices barely rose over the previous two years, this is clearly a change of pace. The culprit is a perfect storm of supply and de-mand factors, hitting us just in time for grilling season.

North American beef inventories are low, the lowest being in drought-stricken regions.

Sudden changes in weather patterns tend to increase grain prices, posing a problem for beef producers because seven kilograms of feed and almost 15,000 litres of water are required to produce one kg of beef.

More worrisome still is that it takes almost two years to bring cattle to market, which means it will take a while for inventories to be built up again.

In pork, which is one the world’s cheapest animal proteins, prices are also going up but for a different reason.  The spread of porcine epidemic diarrhea across the continent has reduced hog herds significantly. Even if this virus poses no threat to consumers, we will be asked to pay a little more for bacon or ham in coming months.

Cattle and hog farmers have faced significant headwinds for years because of a barrage of environmental and economic factors, including BSE, foot-and-mouth disease, acute increases of input costs, weak currency and American-based protectionist policies.

Nevertheless, record prices at the farmgate mean the livestock industry is finally seeing better days after many years of heartaches.

This bodes well for our rural economic growth agenda, but it won’t be without adjustments in Canadians’ protein-buying trends.

As consumers, we are hardwired to always look for more affordable alternatives, particularly when it comes to meat products. Given that chicken and fish prices have been relatively stable over the last while and are unlikely to drop, perhaps we will be compelled to explore different protein-sourcing options at the grocery store.

Significantly, our food system is starting to send signals that our current pace in animal production may be slowly reaching its limits.

Consumers are beginning to realize that meat does not just represent protein in our diets. It is a nutritional luxury and part of a way of life that may no longer be sustainable for the vast majority of us.

As Canadians, we have access to one of the world’s most affordable food baskets, and meat has been offered to us at reasonable prices for decades.

With climate change and an in-creased demand for meat in developing countries, protein supplies will likely remain tight and higher meat price trends will probably continue for a long time. Perfect storms like we are currently experiencing at meat counters are liable to become more frequent.

In the future, the meat supply and price dynamic are expected to drive consumers to reconsider the relative environmental and economic value of meat products.

By thinking more holistically about food systems, many of us are increasingly showing signs of wanting to move away from an animal protein-centric diet to a more diverse culinary experience.

Food retailers in Canada are also noticing, and adapting. Loblaw, Canada’s top retailer, just acquired Arz Fine Foods to offer more variety with vegetable protein, particularly to an increasingly multicultural demographic. Other Canadian retailers are seeking similar opportunities, and that’s a good thing.

In essence, the ever growing New Canadians market segment is steering our food industry toward more ethnically focused offerings that possess long and robust dietary and cultural histories.

Undeniably, beef and pork are good sources of protein, and Canadians have embraced the opportunity to grill steaks and ribs on barbecues for years.

But given what lies ahead, consumers will likely be compelled to seek different options. And for that, we should be thankful for the ever-growing diversity of our nation and our food basket.

Sylvain Charlebois is professor of food distribution and policy and associate dean of the College of Business and Economics at the University of Guelph.

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