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Meat Eaters: What are They Buying These Days?


Beef Producers Gear Up to Support Consumer Trends

Fewer cows certainly doesn’t mean fewer shoppers in the meat section of the grocery store. In fact, in 2023 meat purchases were up $122 billion proving that as both demand and health definitions shift, people still like to eat real meat. This year meat sales are expected to increase. What is changing is how value is assessed?


The New Consumer

The list of values didn’t change drastically, but it did get longer. As always, appearance is a significant piece of the purchasing equation for beef buyers. How meat actually looks in a store will prompt buyers to make a purchase or shop for something else.


The same holds true when we consider price. The cost of the cut of meat is a major consideration. Even when it is determined to be a valuable purchase, if a customer can’t afford it, they will shop for another option. 


Lately, two new popular trends when purchasing food have emerged, and we can absolutely add these to the equation for the 2024 meat market landscape.


One new trend is nutrition. We’ve seen the food industry ebb and flow when it comes to nutritional fads. Recently, the trend has circled back to protein strong diets. Though there is a huge push for plant-based protein, meat protein is still the most popular. Especially among consumers who look at meat options, like beef, as being not just a protein source, but an all around vitamin and mineral packed food option. 


The other trend driving consumer meat purchases is animal welfare, which translates (for the consumer) into labels that indicates how that animal was raised and/or processed.  A few familiar ones include grass-finished beef, organically grown, and free range. Each label speaks to how the animal was raised, what it consumed, and how it was handled. These labels are likely just the tip of the iceberg. As more consumers value this knowledge when making purchases we are sure to see producers pivot to accommodate.


The Future Meat Labeling System

Future meat labels might include more information for consumers than just how animals were raised and processed. We are already starting to see net carbon zero indicators and emission percentages language being used in packaging to attract the “new” consumer. It’s possible that we will see more information about AI usage and sustainability in processing practices show up on meat packaging stickers.


Value is shifting to prioritize transparency and traceability. A meat producer willing to share their process and implement systems that allow consumers to track the life of their food source could be positioned to enjoy a greater benefit at market.


In a 2023 study, results showed that among consumers:

  • 50% care about how animals are raised

  • 32% considered meat production methods

  • 22% were motivated mainly by convenience

  • Among younger consumers, 75% considered sustainability


Will Shifting Values Change Commercial Meat Production?

With a growing population, but more specifically, global middle class, we probably won’t see an end to commercial production facilities. While value definitions might expand, many people still prioritize cost and accessibility over sustainability or traceability. And commercial meat facilities continue to produce low-cost and safe food.


Processing facilities might turn towards smaller ranching operations when buying if they are set up for traceability programs. Or they may enter this market by purchasing smaller brands.


Labels share information and build trust with consumers who want to make informed meat purchases. As processors begin to understand just how labeling language can either increase or decrease sales, this is becoming a more mainstream model of communicating quality. Many consumers want to know more and better understand their meat purchases. They are looking to farmers, ranchers, butchers, and processing facilities to supply them with this information.


Is There Still Room for Meatless Meat?

A popular trend when purchasing food just a few years ago was meatless meat. While plant-based alternatives are expected to expand with lots of new technology in the works, over all, the meatless options are seeing a slight decrease in demand. Recent studies show that the driving force for many people to move towards a more plant based diet is sustainability. However, only 1 in 5 Americans is consuming a meatless alternative once a month or more.


The growing trend towards uncovering the most nutritional bang for your buck has made many fans of the meatless alternatives curious about what exactly they are eating. Nutritionally motivated folks are opting to shop for foods that don’t need nutrition labels. 


But, the industry is adapting quickly to find ways to make food options that are both easy on the environment and healthy. It’s possible that we will see meatless meat make a comeback in the next few years.


The Taste Factor

At the end of the day, we tend to buy what we like. And when it comes to food, we often buy what tastes the best to us. As we saw with the Chinese pork market, flavor is still a factor. The Chinese pork industry took a hit when their processing and raising methods changed. The actual flavor of the pork changed and consumers didn’t like it and sales fell.


It’s possible the same could happen in America in different meat sectors. Grass finished has a different flavor than grain finished. The same holds true for chicken and pork; what animals consume plays a part in how they taste. 


Will Grocery Stores Look Different?

Supply is down, demand is up, value is redefined, and you might be wondering what that means for your grocery store experience. Don’t be surprised if you see your local meat department playing to two types of customers: 1) the environmental and health conscious consumer and 2) the customer in need of convenience.


We might well be returning to the meat market model where customers actually go to the counter and ask a butcher to prepare a cut of meat to their liking. This would make it more affordable for people to buy their preferred meat option in a quantity or of a cut they can afford.  Smaller portions of nutritionally dense, environmentally friendly meat.


Similarly, the conscious consumer also seems to be in need of easy to prepare meals. It’s possible that we will see the all natural, grass fed, free range and organic markets expand with grab and go or reheat options. Already the organic beef markets are moving into the convenient breakfast sector and marketing to the health conscious.


No doubt, the perspective of the new consumer will shape the market trends.


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