Protein and produce in a post-COVID-19 world

May 28, 2020
6 min read

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted global food and drink in numerous and unprecedented ways, from consumers stockpiling food out of fear of shortages to sickening workers across the supply chain, to upending foodservice operations, to making international trade significantly more difficult with travel bans and border closures.

As of April 2020, the crisis has forced some of the biggest meat companies like Smithfield Foods, Cargill, JBS and Tyson Foods to close slaughterhouses and processing facilities. . As harvesting and processing capacity diminished, farmers had to leave vegetables unharvested, dump milk and euthanize animals. Meanwhile, pork prices have continued to grow in China as the market reeled from the impact of African Swine Fever and further production disruptions due to the outbreak.

Most importantly, the pandemic has forced many consumers to rethink how they shop for and cook food and, ultimately, what they eat. As some form of physical distancing, soaring unemployment, and an economic recession continue to shape global markets, protein and produce companies will face challenges and opportunities in key areas – health, safety, sustainability, value and trust.

Meat from animals will shift away from the center of the plate

Meat consumption is high, with nearly nine in 10 consumers in US, Brazil and select European countries report eating meat, according to Mintel research on packaged red meat. Unsurprisingly, staples like beef and chicken were flying off the shelves as consumers stocked up. As we enter the “new normal” post-COVID-19, consumers will continue to buy meat, but more likely in smaller quantities and with lower frequency.

Unprocessed red meat will be hit hardest. Pork and beef will be especially challenged in the post-COVID-19 reality because plant closures and strains on farms will result in higher prices. In a price-sensitive environment, even the category’s most avid consumers might be willing to trade down, or out, to save money.

Slightly less expensive animal proteins will fare better, similar to the previous US recession, when lunch meat and poultry rebounded as consumer spending switched away from foodservice and towards eating in.

Increased focus on trim and blended products as supply chain issues are in the spotlight

Increased prevalence of African Swine Fever has already forced many manufacturers to look at trim in a new light to meet global demand for protein, especially for pork-based products. Post-COVID-19, trim innovation will be essential to keep animal protein products affordable, as meat prices surge due to disruptions (and potential shortages) and to cut back on food waste.

Companies can use trim to create value-added products (eg premium meat condiments, snacks and prepared meals and meal components) at a lower price point to appeal to consumers that are already having a hard time justifying the high cost of meat.

Blended products that combine animal and lower-cost, better-for-you plant-based ingredients will also be an important area of innovation.

COVID-19 will change attitudes towards meat in China and India

China’s COVID-19 outbreak is prompting consumers in the market to rethink their consumption of animal proteins. The virus’s spread is closely connected to the Wuhan Huanan Seafood market, a wet market that sells meat as well as live animals and has prompted questions surrounding the role of live animal trade in the epidemic. Besides instigating improved hygiene precautions and more stringent regulations, the incident could trigger increased interest in safe and sustainable proteins.

Alternative meats, such as plant-based or even eventually lab-grown meat, will likely find consumers in China, and indeed globally, more receptive to the ‘clean’ meat proposition these products can offer.

Demand for plant-based protein is already surging in Asia, and will continue to grow

While China remains the world’s biggest consumer of animal proteins, changes in attitudes towards meat are creating a lucrative market for plant-based protein makers. Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have recently gained traction as Starbucks and Yum China’s KFC got in on the act with plant-based product promotions.

In turn, startups are responding to the need for plant-based proteins that fit regional needs for braised, sauced and stewed meat.

Consumer interest in “whole” foods will elevate produce over processed alternatives

Fruit, vegetables and legumes will also benefit from consumer interest in foods that promote health and wellbeing in challenging times. In the US, Lundberg Family Farms and Green Giant highlight the high-protein content in their plant-based frozen meals, which are made without meat substitutes. These high-protein, plant-only meals will attract consumers who want to eat more plants and less processed foods, yet feel meals should be anchored in protein.
There’s an opportunity for brands to strategically connect with flexitarian and omnivore consumers alike by aligning with the benefits of protein- and whole food-centric dietary patterns.

Make protein’s connection to immune health a selling point

There’s an opportunity for brands to strategically connect with flexitarian and omnivore consumers alike by aligning with the benefits of protein- and whole food-centric dietary patterns. Specifically, highlight the role of protein, and other nutrients in red meat, poultry and fish, in immune system health. This connection will be particularly important as consumers question the overall value of animal proteins.

Three in 10 US consumers who have eaten red meat more often than a year ago cite getting important nutrients as the reason for increasing their consumption and half say they are trying to eat more protein, according to Mintel US research on packaged red meat.

As consumers become focused on keeping their immune systems at full strength, brands can remind consumers that a little bit of beef, chicken, or fish goes a long way and a small serving can help them obtain nutrients that are essential to immune health and overall wellbeing.

Target an integrated food systems approach to sustainability

During the pandemic, consumers have experienced how fragile our life on the planet can be as the virus exposed the vulnerability of our food systems and how human nutrition, agriculture, economic development and environment are inextricably linked.

The problem of how we nourish ourselves while preserving the planet will require an integrated food systems approach. This means not only focusing the conversation around whether or not humans should eat meat but also solving critical global issues like food insecurity, habitat and biodiversity loss and climate change.

As consumers become more aware of these connections, companies will be evaluated not only based on their economic impact, but also on their social and environmental.

Fruit and vegetable suppliers can go direct-to-consumer

When they are no longer fearful of shortages, consumers’ purchasing will shift towards more fresh fruit and vegetables. This presents an opportunity for online fruit and vegetable delivery business models which can successfully combine freshness, high quality and convenience.

Some fruit and vegetable suppliers to the foodservice industry, such as Lilu Fruits in Poland, have already recognized this as a growth area and have repositioned themselves to cater to individual consumers.

What we think

As personal health and safety continue to be a priority, both animal proteins and meat substitutes will benefit from consumer interest in protein and other nutrients that might support immune function. However, some consumers will rethink their protein sources in favor of the alternatives. Showcasing value and commitment to sustainability will be key to winning and maintaining share of the plate long-term.

Dasha Shor
Dasha Shor

Dasha Shor is a global food analyst at Mintel, specializing in animal proteins, dairy and their alternatives. A Registered Dietitian, Dasha leans on her nutrition and food science expertise and experience working with commodity, foodservice and CPG companies to develop actionable insights for the food and beverage industry.

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