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Report explores post-recession meat-eating trends

5 min read

Food Retail

Omnivorous consumers had several reasons to rethink their meat-buying habits during the past five or six years, as the recession hit grocery budgets, droughts drove meat prices higher and the federal government replaced the Pyramid with MyPlate, a model for nutrition that calls for veggies to make up at least half of the meal.

The past decade saw the rise of Meatless Mondays and other moves by some chefs to leave meat off the plate entirely at more meals. Meanwhile, food companies and researchers have been working hard to create better plant-based alternatives that taste more like meat, as The New York Times reported last week.

All that said, recent research shows that Americans are still eating plenty of meat, and there’s evidence that the recovery has led to an uptick in spending — home-cooked dinners that included meat or poultry rose from 3.6 per week to 3.8, and 36% of the consumers who changed their meat-buying habits last year spent more than the previous year, according to the ninth annual Power of Meat report from the Food Marketing Institute, the American Meat Institute and The Cryovac Brand.

“Increased consumption was one of many subtle indicators that meat buying patterns are starting to return to the ‘old normal’ — being pre-recession purchasing habits,” said lead researcher Anne-Marie Roerink, a principal at 210 Analytics. “Price continues to rule the purchasing decision tree, but its dominance isn’t quite as strong as it has been in recent years.”

Roerink shared more perspectives from the report.

Beef prices hit another record high in February, and some analysts say prices will keep climbing because supply can’t keep up with growing global demand. If prices keep climbing, will consumers switch permanently to less-pricey proteins?

Making ends meet with smaller budgets and higher prices in the past few years, consumers have gotten extremely savvy in switching between brands, proteins and cuts to find the best value for their money. In past years, that increased flexibility towards the meat purchase indeed resulted in shoppers switching from beef to pork, or chicken breasts to chicken thighs. However, as another subtle indicator that the market is starting to stabilize, pound sales for both beef and chicken were flat in 2013, despite above-average increases in prices.

It is fair to say that shoppers are willing to do some homework to create a weekly meal lineup to their liking. Meat and poultry are very much a planned purchase. Shoppers check across a number of communication vehicles (led by the print circular, do so often (83 percent check across stores at least sometimes) and promotions are an integral part of meal planning. Twenty-four percent check what’s on sale and plan meals accordingly. Additionally, 16 percent plan meals and check across stores to find matching promotions.

We read a lot during the recession about people belt-tightening and eating more meatless meals in recent years. Is that shifting back at all as the economy recovers? Are there other factors in play, such as health concerns, that will keep some segment of consumers eating at least some meatless meals as their finances improve?

Americans like their meat and poultry, and meatless meals are the least popular way for consumers to save money. Much more popular ways among those looking to save are taking advantage of promotions, stocking up when meat is on sale, and buying in bulk or preparing dishes that stretch the meat dollar by requiring less meat, such as pastas or casseroles. But beyond trying to save, there are indeed other reasons for an occasional meatless meal.

This year’s survey probed into the use of meat alternatives, such as eggs, beans, veggie burgers, quinoa and soy. We found that while 80% of households prepare meat alternatives on occasion, the frequency is very low: 16% do so once a week and 39% even less often than that. Just like we saw in money-saving measures, eating meatless meals is the least attractive of the six listed healthy eating strategies, lagging far behind leaner cuts, smaller portion sizes and limiting second helpings.

MyPlate, which replaced the food pyramid, puts meat, beans, legumes, etc., all together in the protein category, and gives protein a smaller place on the plate. Has this change had an impact on Americans’ meat consumption patterns?

The Power of Meat study does not directly measure the impact of MyPlate on consumption. But there are a lot of other variables that impact consumption and buying patterns. One of these is health and wellness, whether driven by MyPlate recommendations or general knowledge.  The importance of health and wellness relative to the meat and poultry purchase tends to be directly related to the health of the economy.

This year’s report measured a slight increase in the number of people putting some or a lot of effort in making sure their choices are nutritious. Relative to processed meats, such as sausages, shoppers most often scan the nutritional facts panel for total fat, sodium, saturated fat and calories, and relative to fresh meat, the focus is on lean and portion control. Other factors affecting consumption patterns include age, gender and region, but above all, income. Higher-income shoppers spend more, prepare meat and poultry more often, are less price sensitive and more geared towards convenience and so on.