It seems the pleasure of eating is being overpowered by values-based food consumption. And it’s happening at an astonishing pace.
Vegetarianism and veganism are coming into their own, allowing more people to ‘come out of the cupboard’ to speak openly about and affirm their commitment to a self-imposed diet. They’re doing it for animal welfare, the environment, health – whatever factor is deemed personally important.
But make no mistake, this trend is an indication that the economy is strong.
Human psychology shows us that consumers traditionally indulge, ironically perhaps, in times of uncertainty. Fear of food insecurity is very powerful. Consumers who lose their job, for example, often treat themselves to sweets and other unhealthy offerings, just to forget about their reality for a while.
But it appears that healthy eating habits are winning over indulgence.
And once long-term food security is achieved, even if it’s based on pure optics, many things can change.
The food security concept recognizes the importance of food quality in a general sense, including food safety, nutrition and health, as well as the experiential aspects of food shopping and consumption. This is likely where our economic cycle is now.
Years ago, food conversations were about flavours, tastes and traditions. Today, we talk more about morals and values linked to how we consume food, simply because we can afford to.
Stock markets are on a tear and the unemployment rate is nearing an all-time low. Food is not just about survival; it’s about making a socio-economic statement as much as a moral one. At some social gatherings, people can be made to feel as though eating meat is a crime.
In the past, consumers recognized that they had limited ability to influence the choices they were offered. They doubted that even collective action would work to change those choices. And they made little connection between threats to global food supply and their daily consumption practices.
That’s all changed, thanks to the abundance of free time we now enjoy.
Most of our time is spent looking at a screen of some sort. Technological advances, coupled with our pursuit of convenience, have given us a lot more time to think differently about food. Grocery shopping and cooking take less time than the pre-industrial practices of hunting and harvesting. And ready-to-eat food means we save even more time, which we can spend on developing a philosophical attitude toward food consumption.
Technology makes our lives simple, and with simplicity comes greater coherent thought and enhanced self-awareness as a consumer, particularly as a food consumer.
In response, the industry is adapting quickly. McDonald’s is offering Big Macs without the meat and, according to some sources, the Beyond Meat Burger campaign at A&W is a great success. We’ve also seen changes in packaging and labels to appeal to the increasing number of consumers who are rejecting the status quo.
But it all really comes down to the state of the economy.
The unemployment rate is incredibly low, and according to human resources giant Morneau Shepell, salaries should go up by an average of 2.6 per cent over the next 12 months.
More money in consumers’ pockets will allow them to believe they can trade up, or perhaps sideways, when making food choices.
Also enticing to consumers is a weaker than expected food inflation rate across the country. Food inflation remains more than one per cent lower than the general inflation rate.
However, grocers are indicating that prices will increase due to U.S. tariffs. While the rationale of raising prices due to tariffs is highly disputable, when grocers use financial updates to let consumers know prices may go up, it’s a sign. Loblaw and Metro have done it and it wouldn’t be surprising if Sobeys follows suit. Food inflation should reach 2.0 to 2.5 per cent by year’s end.
But even with higher food prices, the buoyant economy allows more of us to think about the ethical, environmental and moral implications of our food choices.
And we can afford to – for now.
Sylvain Charlebois is dean of the Faculty of Management and a professor in the Faculty of Agriculture at Dalhousie University, senior fellow with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, and author of Food Safety, Risk Intelligence and Benchmarking, published by Wiley-Blackwell (2017).