Friday, April 12, 2024

Meat should trade on a taste for the real thing

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Of all the winning attributes of red meat, taste is pretty much taken for granted, says Allan Barber.
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The 2024 US Power of Meat report, released in time for the Annual Meat Conference in Nashville, shows meat retaining its popularity in the United States with 98% of households purchasing meat, while the number of consumers seeking to reduce meat consumption has fallen by 20% since 2020. 

This indicates a drop-off in the rate of adoption of alternative protein versions like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, whose sales have stalled or declined since their initial surge. 

It appears likely consumers have found these alternative products lacking in the taste and texture they find in traditional forms of protein.

The Power of Meat report covers all types of meat, including pork, chicken and turkey which remain very popular with American consumers, although the research data show changes in eating habits from Baby Boomers to Generations X and Z and Millennials. 

A particularly interesting finding highlighted at the conference last month was the trend away from price alone as a motivator. Consumers now look at price in combination with either or all of nutrition, taste, sustainability, convenience or health. 

Another trend that may be mirrored in New Zealand is 43% of Americans cutting back on eating out, with 75% saying they try to prepare a restaurant-quality meal at home. 

In this country Ministry of Health research into dietary habits demonstrates 92.8% of adults eat red meat at least weekly, which for children increases to 94.7%. The research shows more than 80% of New Zealanders find meat delicious and convenient, while three-quarters of those surveyed agree it is nutritious and good for health.

A US trend that may have already arrived here is the tendency of the younger generations to move from meat as the centre of the plate (steak, lamb chops) to a preference for meat as part of a meal solution. 

The challenge will be to continue to satisfy Baby Boomers, while working out how to appeal to Gen X, Z and Millennials. Rick Stein, vice-president of the Food Industry Association and Meat Institute (not the famous British chef), told the conference that meat departments in the US need to focus on exploiting the flavour of meat, which tends to be taken for granted. 

It made me think I have never been aware of a NZ retailer promoting meat for its flavour – rather telling shoppers the price and assuming they know what they want and will find it in the chiller. 

There are certainly different pack sizes on offer and, increasingly, different branded retail cuts with marinades, but our supermarket chillers are still dominated by plain packs of steak, chops, legs, diced beef and lamb. The US research suggests the supermarket approach may be good enough for the Boomers, but won’t satisfy the pickier younger generations. 

In this country the campaign to educate people about the flavour or sizzle of red meat is entirely left in the hands of traditional butchers’ shops and Beef and Lamb Inc with its Iron Maidens championing its benefits.

A small but growing number of sheep and beef producers have for decades tried to market their production on their own account, convinced they should earn more than was being offered under the standard grading system. 

These attempts have usually failed, firstly because of the difficulties of supplying all year round, secondly the need to market the output of the whole carcase instead of just the higher-paying cuts, and thirdly the meat processors weren’t interested. 

In recent years all the processors have developed their own specific programmes that guarantee premiums for meeting specifications aimed at particular target consumer groups.

Recent research into Australian and US red meat eaters by AgResearch and Meat & Livestock Australia suggests there is an opportunity for tailored red meat products to attract a premium for wellness, both cognitive and mood on the one hand and joint and gut health on the other. 

The researchers say there needs to be robust scientific evidence to prove red meat’s positive contribution to wellness, although the Ministry of Health dietary research suggests consumers are already fully aware of these benefits. 

This research confirms the thoughts of two of the main speakers at the American Annual Meat Conference, Stein and Anne-Marie Roerink, principal of 210 Analytics, which produced the Power of Meat report. 

The report’s other key conclusions, in addition to the trend away from price alone as a motivator, were the need to beware of the generation gap and to make meat a destination in its own right.

In the US, purchasing patterns are changing with supermarkets’ share of purchases reducing at the expense of bulk supercentres, while online meat sales make up only 1% of the market. Grocery stores’ share of meat sales have declined from 71% in 2007 to 48% today, which puts pressure on stores to be able to optimise customers’ spending while they are in store.

This will be achieved not by a race to the bottom on price, but by products offering a thoughtful combination of the different purchase motivators.

I am somewhat doubtful about how the meat industry goes about developing and promoting specific meat products with the capacity to improve on meat’s known health benefits. But it will certainly be helpful if the scientists can come up with more compelling evidence to ensure consumer awareness in the battle against alternative proteins and lobby groups who maintain agricultural production is destroying the planet. 

Meat marketers will require guidance from their customers to help them decide on product development direction that meets the wishes of the new generations of consumers. The importance of direct marketing the more targeted product range to the digital generation will also grow. 

I suspect finding and developing the skills for this new age will be more challenging than competition from non-meat alternatives, which have yet to prove they can replicate the attractions and benefits of the real thing.

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