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Hot dog or Not-dog: is meat-free here to stay?

10th February 2021

By Toby Williams and Amity Watts.

Britons love meat. Well, 86% of us do. Steak; burgers; sausages; you name it, we’ll eat it. A mainstay of our diets since prehistoric times, it’s so permeated into modern society that it’s a commodity in itself. We even have specialised teeth optimised for eating it. But it’s 2021 and the world is seeing some huge changes, many that have been accelerated by the pandemic. With Veganuary just behind us and lots of talk about consumers reducing their meat intake, let’s take a closer look at what is going on.

What’s all the fuss about?

Like it or not meat-alternatives are here to stay, and whether you are interested in going more plant-based or simply keeping up with the latest innovation in this industry, there has truly never been a more exciting time to explore meat-free. Ask anyone in food production where the most interesting innovation is happening right now and they will tell you it’s here. The products specifically designed to mimic meat are edging ever and ever closer to the real thing, even winning in blind taste tests, and the veggie and vegan sections of the supermarkets are now full of tasty alternatives for quick mid-week dinners, following a surge in plant-based eating that began in 2018. This year’s Veganuary saw over 500,000 people officially sign up. Name another food category or movement that has an annual dedicated challenge attracting half a million people (plus even more who did it unofficially)? There isn’t one. This sector is in massive growth.

Why the shift?

We are living in super-charged times where widespread access to the internet and social media has created an unprecedented level of information and exposure to what’s going on in the world. Consumers are now very aware of the catastrophic ethical and environmental impact of meat and dairy farming, and many want to do something about it. Awareness of climate change was accelerated in 2020 by Extinction Rebellion protests, the David Attenborough documentary and Greta Thunberg’s profile, aided by the fact many of us were stuck at home with time on our hands and the internet news for company. You need only take a glance at FMCG on the whole to see that there has been a massive shift towards ethical improvements in supply chain, production and packaging in recent years. These may be topics that mainly sit in the minds of Gen Z and younger, but as those generations grow up and the power of their spend increases, their thinking will play out in how they choose to spend their money.

So are we actually eating less meat?

Yes and no! Beef sales are slightly lower year-on-year, while chicken sales are boosted by endless promotions that are potentially preventing actual category growth. There are seasonal surges such as Christmas, where it’s hard to imagine most UK households swapping the turkey for a family nut roast. There will always be sausages on the BBQ as soon as the sun comes out, and lockdowns have given meat sales a boost, with many shoppers on a tighter budget sticking to familiar recipes to feed their families. Our recent LinkedIn poll revealed that 75% of our network would not even consider Veganuary. Overall though, the numbers speak for themselves; 7% of the UK population is now vegan, up from 1% two years ago, and 14% call themselves vegetarian.

What does this mean for Consumers?

Basically, more choice. As supermarkets and brands compete for our spend, they’re going to continue to innovate, invest and offer us more options. As we show more interest in sustainability, health, animal welfare and climate change, we are going to look at how adjustments to our diets can be made easily and affordably. The way we spend our money is how we tell the food industry what we want to see. It’s worth mentioning also that these trends do present opportunities for the meat industry too; UK game sales rose 8% in 2019 and there is no doubt consumers are looking to leaner, more sustainable options in their meat eating as well as their plant-based eating.

What does this mean for jobs?

Innovation and progression is great for the economy, and people certainly aren’t eating any less! The emergence of new brands and expansion of these new categories in our supermarkets can only be a good thing for those working in the food sector. We can’t go backwards from the changes the last year has accelerated, so the meat-free category is pretty much guaranteed to continue growing and expanding for the foreseeable future. You need only pop down to your local supermarket to see the amount of shelf space meat-free products are now given, and if like us you can remember a time when meat-free was still a niche category with maybe 3 or 4 products maximum on shelf, then you too will have experienced the massive shift in focus towards promoting these brands that has developed over recent years. It’s no longer all about feeding niche vegans, as really these products are made for everyone. No-one said trying meat-free means you have to give up meat altogether, and by extension, being a vegan yourself has never been a prerequisite for pursuing a career within a growing, on-trend and ethically progressive field.

In conclusion, it’s good news! More awareness leads to more investment, investment leads to innovation, innovation grows category space and creates even more awareness; so the cycle continues. Our LinkedIn poll results might suggest meat-free is just a fad for some, but the global and UK stats speak for themselves. Pass us a not-dog!

Image via Unsplash.com

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