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Pandemic rewriting food fundamentals

Expert urges farmers to get in on direct-marketing wave

The 2021 Banff Pork Seminar offered a trove of valuable information for Canada’s hog producers.
Sylvain Charlebois. photo: Supplied

He’s known as the “food professor,” an educator in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia and senior director of the university’s innovative Agri-Food Analytics Lab. Sylvain Charlebois spends his days on “predictive analytics,” looking at the future of food.

Many will know him from frequent mainstream media appearances. He is also one of the most-cited people on the planet on food supply chain management, food value chains and traceability. So when Charlebois brought his food message to the 2021 Banff Pork Seminar last month, in the middle of the global pandemic, there was valuable information for the pork sector.

Legacies of COVID

Charlebois said the pandemic is helping to rewrite the rules of the food industry across Canada and around the world. Pork producers are tough, he reminded his audience. They know the meaning of crisis, of riding the ups and downs of a cyclical industry.

Their challenge today is to read the changes coming in the food industry and prepare to capitalize on them. Here are key points he identified:

  • Consumer confidence. When the consumer is confident, meat economics are not an issue, he says. However, during the pandemic many people are fearful and foodservice and food retail have to help make people feel comfortable. Pork can be well-positioned because it is in the middle ground and kind to people on a tight budget.
  • The fiscal sandwich. Expect meat prices to go up at retail in 2021 and that could create a “fiscal sandwich” when disposable income shrinks with increased taxation and loss or change of jobs.
  • Fewer nomads. One legacy of COVID is telecommuting. People move out of cities, and employers allow employees to work from home. So consumers don’t stop for that coffee and don’t go to the store or restaurants as much. They will stay home more.
  • A more-literate consumer. Gardening and cooking will drive a new, more-literate consumer. One in five Canadians started a garden in 2020. They know Mother Nature is not perfect. People are also cooking more. They know more recipes and food alternatives, and are growing their own food.
  • A democratized supply chain. COVID completely changed the rules of the supply chain and made the line between retail and foodservice disappear. Everything is up for grabs and that won’t change. Farmers, processors, retailers and distributors all have direct access to the consumer by e-commerce. That sector grew by 4.5 per cent in 2020 — that’s $10 billion worth of food.

Kraft Heinz opened a restaurant in Toronto. President’s Choice (Loblaws) Chef is supplying meal kits where the restaurant experience can be completed at home. In the last six months, 65 per cent of Canadians have ordered food online and 48 per cent are thinking of ordering food online after the pandemic.

Grocers are investing billions to improve service online and improve delivery service. They will continue to get better. In most markets, consumers can now order groceries and have them in a couple of hours. That was not possible before the pandemic.

  • Millennials and Generation Z will drive e-commerce. Farmers can get in on the action too. In the last six months of 2020 more people bought food directly from farmers through online farmers markets.
  • The rise of plant protein. In 2020 meat became more expensive and history shows dramatic price increases can spook consumers. In 2014 for example, beef prices went up considerably and this was a major reason for the rise in veganism and plant-based dieting.

Once you engrain the idea meat is expensive, you have a problem. In 2020 more consumers looked at plant protein.

  • Getting adventurous with meats. The past year also saw a move to specialty meats such as duck, bison, rabbit and elk. Duck sales were up 22 per cent, bison 197 per cent. Restaurants were closed and people saw prices were up so they said they might as well try something new.

Good value

Charlebois said value-added is important for the pork industry. People love meat but they also love value. Pork has gained currency in the past few years.

Partnerships will be critical. Pork needs to get into people’s homes and to do that producers need to partner with meal kits providers, grocers and restaurants so they can deliver a high-quality product.

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