How a pandemic has accelerated some food trends, while slowing others

Dr. David Hughes, aka Dr. Food, has travelled the world speaking about the business of food and drink. Recently, he didn’t have to travel far from his home in Wales — only as far as his armchair — to deliver his message as the opening keynote speaker at the Canadian Beef Industry Conference, held online this year.

Hughes doesn’t remember a time in his life when a level of disruption such as COVID-19 has occurred in the food system.  “What intrigues me is how it has accelerated most trends and oddly enough, decelerated some others,” he says.

In the wider scheme of things, there has been an acceleration in online grocery retail, which Canadians have been slow to adopt. Frozen food seems more comforting to buy online, possibly from a safety perspective, despite it being viewed as not as high quality as fresh. The “big shop” for groceries has been online, while the “little shop” has been to the corner grocery store in person.

When it comes to shopping for meat, people are more often reaching out to local producers to purchase a side of beef; but there just aren’t many local abattoirs around in Canada, so the pandemic exposed a weak link in that part of the supply chain. Online grocery shopping seems to strengthen that link; however, the trend in Canada is that consumers want to select their own meat, and it has taken a while for consumers to trust that store clerks know what they’re looking at in a cut of meat and will select the best.

Catch the full conversation between Hughes and RealAg’s Shaun Haney below:

A trend that decelerated was the move against plastic packaging pre-pandemic. “In comes COVID-19 and we see that plastic actually has a role, not least a food safety and food protection role, and so we’re willing, during this difficult period to give plastic a little bit more leeway,” says Hughes. It may not be a long-lived downward trend though but for the time being consumers have to be willing to purchase something that’s well wrapped.

The profile of food security has been raised and is now featured in business economy magazines and other higher profile publications. “Over the last 18 months to two years, on a regular basis, there are major articles pertaining to food — that never used to be the case,” says Hughes. Animal welfare is discussed at the forefront as well, and both these topics gaining major recognition caught Hughes by surprise.

National food security has also gained recognition and countries are questioning their own self-sufficiency within the broader, but also more narrow, household schemes of food security. Plant protein sector growth may serve as a solution to self-sufficiency and could be a major success story, especially in Canada. A product with a 50:50 blend of meat and protein may be the perfect solution to domestic consumer demand and satisfying both plant and meat protein industries. Hughes thinks there is plenty of room in both markets and plenty of potential in Canada.

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