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Sylvain CharleboisThe COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone on Earth one way or another, which is why the moment we are in is so unique. The way we consume food has also changed: how and where we buy it, and where we consume it have seen tremendous changes over the last 11 months.

Proteins play a significant role in our nutrition, COVID or no COVID.

Some claimed early in the pandemic that Canadians would go back to basics and get reacquainted with the meat counter, like in the old days.

The numbers are in and show that Canadians haven’t forgotten their omnivarian roots.

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Nationally, NielsenIQ data shows that pork had a great 12 months of sales, from Feb. 1, 2020, to Jan. 31, 2021. Volume-wise, sales were up 12 percent, more than chicken and beef. Dollar-wise, sales were up 17 percent for pork, 16 percent for beef and 12 percent for chicken, despite processing plant closures and disruptions across supply chains.

Ontario really showed some love for pork, with unit sales growing by a whopping 17 percent. The West also expressed more interest in pork, with volume sales going up 14 percent.

Quebec is the only province where beef sales exceeded those of pork and chicken in volume, at 12 percent. Quebec’s renewed focus on beef produced in the province appears to be paying off.

Despite the recalls and the disruptions due to COVID-19 outbreaks in countless meat processing plants across the country, consumers are still showing up at the meat counter.

Last year, Canadian consumers had many reasons to walk away from meat but they didn’t. This should come as a significant relief to the livestock industry.

At least 16 plants have had to shut down due to COVID-19 and many more have experienced outbreaks. What hung in the balance was consumer confidence in the sector, but Canadians remained committed to animal proteins.

The virus was never a food safety issue either, at least not for Canadians. Rumours swirled about the virus contaminating our food supplies but it appears Canadian consumers were never been deterred. That’s quite reassuring.

Our love for meat products, though, has come at a price. All three components of the meat trifecta got more expensive in 2020, which is highly uncommon. Food inflation has driven dollar sale increases at the meat counter, especially for beef. Nationally, beef unit sales were up eight percent and dollar sales were up 16 percent. For pork and chicken, it was the same story.

The last time beef dollar sales doubled unit sales was in 2014, when many consumers were sticker-shocked and started to look for other sources of protein. The product never fully recovered as many butcher shops around the country closed.

Per capita consumption has continued to drop but the decline in beef demand per capita has accelerated since 2014.

Little by little, vegetable proteins started to show up in different places before the 2018 invasion by companies like Beyond Meat. The movement socially normalized the demand for vegetable proteins and allowed everyone to get a better understanding of what agriculture has to offer – all of agriculture.

Such progress is making proteins more democratic and accessible, even though food demand is more fragmented than ever. Meat sales numbers show Canadians remain faithful to animal proteins while looking for more variety. Canadian consumers win and so will the industry over time.

We’re now seeing unprocessed vegetable proteins displayed close to meat counters. Chickpeas, lentils, you name it, are offered at affordable prices, as they should be. Placing animal and vegetable proteins close together points to the emergence of a protein category at the grocery store.

The vegetable protein category is slowly maturing into an empowering experience for consumers. In lieu of flexitarian or 50/50 solutions, consumers can figure out for themselves which protein they want.

Consumers are learning and so are grocers.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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meat, covid

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