Pandemic protein sticker shock

·4 min read

There’s a special recipe for “meat-counter economics” that’s simmering across grocery stores in Canada.

The not-so-secret ingredient? COVID-19.

Leading food economists believe spiralling pricing and consumption trends won’t just last during the course of the pandemic, but will likely result in sticker shocks for any kind of protein for many years to come.

That includes plant-based products along with the “industry trifecta” of chicken, pork and beef, said Sylvain Charlebois, speaking to more than 700 nutritionists and food-sector professionals at a virtual conference Tuesday.

Charlebois, a keynote speaker at the event hosted by the Canadian Nutrition Society and senior director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab, talked at length about the many ways in which the coronavirus has “rampaged” the trajectory of food-related commerce.

“Before the crisis, vegetable proteins were truly rising and very much in fashion, plastics were the new threat and shopping online was seen by many as a far-fetched idea,” said the supply management professor, based at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

“That hasn’t only changed now, but it’s impacted everyone — from restaurants, grocers, abattoirs, online services and those that are customers for them, down to the suppliers and manufacturers, and even delivery people.”

Through studies and polls conducted last year, food experts have many reasons to believe meat prices will likely continue to rise. At the same time, pricing for plant-based products is expected to remain stagnant, with fewer competitors in the market.

“I like to think of those two food categories as the different dimensions of proteins,” said Charlebois. “Right now, there’s no equilibrium between them. Prior to the pandemic, we were thinking that would happen very soon. And it seems that that peace might still come, it just won’t happen for a while.”

According to polling from the Agri-Food Analytics Lab shared Tuesday, the Prairies rank the highest across Canada in terms of daily consumption for meat — with 72.58 per cent saying they consume meat daily, 17.74 per cent once or twice a week, and 4.84 per cent monthly.

Although they’re about 20 points down for daily consumption in other provinces such as Quebec or British Columbia, those trends are fairly consistent across Canada.

In Manitoba, data from Statistics Canada for beef prices alone shows that, stewing cuts jumped to $17.20 per kilogram from $13.50; sirloin cuts climbed to $24.04 from $17.84; and striploin cuts came to a staggering $31.57 from $18.15.

But those are figures from the summer of 2020, and experts believe they will continue bumping up across the board for several years.

For Charlebois, a lot of that has to do with “the many economic anomalies” created by the pandemic. “We’ve never seen our trifecta of meats on sale with rising prices at the same time really, never ever before,” he said.

“The only way I see this changing though is if consumption itself changes, and there’s some inclinations to show it could happen.”

Since the pandemic has caused meat prices to rise, Charlebois believes Canadians might eventually start buying more plant-based products not just due to dietary desires, but also because of comparatively cheaper costs.

“Think about it this way,” he said. “You’re doing your groceries and about to buy some meat, but you’re sticker-shocked at the price. Wouldn’t you want the cheaper alternative, which in this case is the greener choice and probably even healthier for you?”

At the end of Tuesday’s presentations, moderator Mary L’Abbé asked questions on behalf of the attendees, poring from more than 50 that came in. L’Abbé is a much-lauded nutritional science professor at the University of Toronto.

Questions ranged from how to navigate post-pandemic markets to the language that could be used to create awareness for nutritional products which aren’t performing well in terms of sales.

It all depends on how companies and store chains market their products, Charlebois said, and whether nutritionists can fulfil the “heavy task” of educating widely and readily.

“We’ve seen that food literacy is a pretty big issue for Canadians through our polls across the year,” he said. “We’d expected people would become more aware because of the pandemic, but the reality is, they’re just not. It’s like they know it’s good to be vegan or vegetarian and they respect those who are, they just don’t know why they should be one themselves.

“To combat many of these interesting consumption and economic issues, I think it may be time to realize the entire trajectory has changed. Maybe then we can find the solutions.”

Temur Durrani, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press