Coronavirus pandemic a ‘temporary setback’ for flexitarian movement

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

The proportion of adults limiting or not eating meat dropped significantly in 2020, according to Mintel. GettyImages/lolostock
The proportion of adults limiting or not eating meat dropped significantly in 2020, according to Mintel. GettyImages/lolostock

Related tags Meat BMPA processed meat flexitarian

The UK has observed a temporary slowdown in the meat reduction trend, according to Mintel, who says processed meat sales are booming amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The trend towards flexitarianism, whereby consumers reduce their meat intake and up consumption of plant-based foods, has taken hold in recent years.

According to 2019 YouGov research, 14% of the UK population consider themselves flexitarians – meaning they only occasionally eat meat.

Yet new research from market insight firm Mintel suggests the flexitarian movement has been hindered by the coronavirus pandemic, while demand for processed meat soars.

Flexitarian movement ‘falters’

The proportion of adults limiting or not eating meat dropped significantly in 2020, according to Mintel, with the COVID-19 pandemic playing a major role in the ‘temporary slowdown’ of the flexitarian trend.

The number of Brits actively reducing or excluding meat from their diet dropped from half (51%) of all consumers in 2019 to just four in 10 (41%) in 2020, noted the market insight firm.

At the same time, Mintel’s research highlighted a dramatic increase in the number of Brits who acknowledged the impact that eating meat has on the environment. In 2018, 25% of Brits agreed that eating less meat is better for the environment. In 2020, this figure increased to 42%.

“Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the meat reduction trend was gaining considerable momentum. The huge disruption, uncertainty and stress caused by the pandemic have caused a relaxation around some health- and ethics-driven habits among many consumers,” ​noted Edward Bergen, Global Food & Drink Analyst at Mintel.

“It is not surprising that meat reduction has taken a temporary back seat, particularly given the increased desirability of familiar comfort food and that meat is seen to really deliver here.

“The long, hot summer and an increased need to be outside more gave a boost to sales of sausages and burgers through an increase in opportunities for barbecues.”

Increased processed meat sales

However, processed meat sales did not only soar throughout the summer months. Mintel’s research revealed that sales of such products, including processed poultry and red meat main meal components, spiked by 18% during 2020. Today, the analysts expect the market to be worth £3.7m.

Meat products to benefit from an uptick in scratch cooking and eating at home included breakfast and barbecue favourites, such as bacon (+18%), sausages (+20%) and burgers (+26%).

As more people started to work from home, the market insight firm also noted an increase in processed meats suitable to at-home lunches, for example cooked slice meat and poultry. Ham observed a 9% increase over the course of the year.

And as consumers clambered to stockpile staple foods, the canned meat category also observed a resurgence. In 2020, category sales – which had been in decline in recent years – increased by 22%.

At the same time, more than half (58%) of meat and poultry eaters said that meals that contain processed meat products are comforting.

The British Meat Processors Association (BMPA), which represents players in the British meat industry, does not expect these sales figures to drop post-pandemic.

“Retail sales are strong and we don’t expect this trend to change,” ​a BMPA spokesperson told FoodNavigator. “The public have been keen to eat familiar, tasty and comforting foods throughout this past year and will continue to do so.

“However, it is important to note that figures will be somewhat skewed for as long as the foodservice sector is closed – bacon and sausages are a good example of meat that is commonly eaten out-of-home on a normal day.”

Just a temporary setback?

However, Mintel’s analysts suspect the current setback for the flexitarian movement is, in fact, only temporary, and that post-pandemic, many consumers will continue to decrease their meat intake.

The setback for the flexitarian movement is ‘likely to be very short-lived’, said Bergen. “As the shadow of the pandemic fades, its impact in the mid- and long-term are only going to make the benefits consumers associate with eating less meat seem even more relevant and important.

“This includes those relating to sustainability and to people’s finance, health and weight management. With that in mind, we anticipate a flurry of new plant-based products that will continue to drive plant-based usage in a market which is driven by innovation and newness.”

At the same time, Bergen predicts plant-based meat substitutes – as well as their price – to come under greater scrutiny going forward.

“Although lapsing during the COVID-19 pandemic, the meat reduction movement is expected to rebound. However, meat substitutes must really deliver on the perceived benefits of not eating meat to reap the rewards on this trend.”

The BMPA agreed with Bergen that the ‘health halo’ around meat substitutes will come under greater scrutiny this coming year, “as consumers start to look closely at their ingredients and level of processing to make them”.

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