Meeting consumer demand for beef, helping get beef-centered meals on the table during the pandemic and continuing to keep beef readily available to consumers is front and center for beef industry officials.
Speaking on a webinar about “Beef Insights” March 24, Kansas Beef Council officials revealed the challenges they’ve met in feeding the world during COVID-19, and beyond.
“We had two strategies – protect beef’s reputation and provide at-home cooking knowledge on things consumers were stocking up on,” said Shawn Darcy, senior director of market research for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA).
Beef sales in 2020 amounted to more than 13-billion pounds of beef. Typically, food service represents about 60% of beef volume, but with restaurants closed in 2020, food service accounted for 55% of sales and retail was at 45%.
“2020 was still a very positive year for beef, even during the pandemic. Also, e-commerce was great and will be here to stay,” he said.
The webinar analyzed the impact COVID-19 had on buying practices, what drives beef demand in Kansas and nationally, and what consumer demand may look like going forward.
When people get concerned about life events, it can affect food choices. A year after COVID-19 hit, NCBA surveyed people on how comfortable they will be doing certain activities after they receive their vaccination. Compared to 27% who felt comfortable eating inside restaurants pre-vaccine, 42% said they would feel safe dining out after their shot.
“Almost every state had restrictions on indoor dining, but I expect things to improve dramatically as more people get the COVID vaccine,” said John Sachse, director of industry relations for the Kansas Beef Council.
Essentially, it is just going to take some time, Darcy said.
Eating habits changed. At the height of the pandemic last spring and summer, 84% of meals were being cooked at home. When asked if people would continue to cook meals at home, 65% said yes and 14% said no.
Of those surveyed, 71% eat beef weekly, 81% eat chicken, 48% pork, and 44% fish.
The overall perceptions of beef were positive. When asked about protein, the top preference was that protein “taste great,” and also be safe to eat. Being nutritious and a healthy choice were also priorities.
“Regarding how cattle are raised, of 58% of consumers with a concern, 8% asked about hormones, 5% of the concerns were about antibiotics and 3% about the environment,” Darcy said.
Webinar speakers said that producers certified through the Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program help consumers feel good, knowing beef is grown in an environmentally friendly atmosphere. The BQA program encourages producers to implement management practices that assure their market steers, heifers, cows and bulls are raised in high quality, low-stress conditions.
Perceptions of raising cattle often differ between rural and urban residents. Another recent survey compared beef-eating habits of Kansas City metro residents to Kansans in general. It discovered that Kansas consumers are more positive about beef overall, but Kansas City was close behind. Both rural and urban consumers said new, quick and easy meal ideas will help boost beef consumption.
Another consumer change in the beef industry is e-commerce – ordering beef and other food online. NCBA will continue exploring marketing campaigns and address questions about sustainability.
Although protein ‘substitutes’ including plant-based protein, continue to grow (more so on the West Coast), they’re still a small piece of that protein market.
“We just did focus groups about the topic of sustainability and three out of 24 mentioned meat alternatives, but it wasn’t dominating,” said Jace Thurman, a market intelligence analyst for NCBA.
“It’ll be hard to beat 2020, just because consumers were forced to go into stores,” said Thurman.
As people go to restaurants more, he believes the grilling season will pick up.
Despite changing trends, experts say consumers still want to know the story of farmers and ranchers who raise their food.
“They want the story behind beef. They want to hear from the people raising the animals,” Darcy said. “It’s important for us to remember to tell that the industry as a whole is doing it the right way.”
Reporter Amy Hadachek is a two-time Emmy Award winning meteorologist and a storm chaser who earned her NWA and AMS Broadcast Meteorology Seals of Approval. She and her husband live on a diversified farm in Kansas. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.