RESEARCH | Staff Reporter, UK

Flexitarian movement lags as processed meat sales boom

Mintel expects momentum to return to the plant-based industry.

The COVID-19 pandemic has proved to be a temporary setback for the flexitarian movement, with the proportion of adults limiting or not eating meat dropping significantly in 2020, according to new research from Mintel.

The number of Brits actively limiting, reducing or not eating meat in their diet has reduced from half (51%) of all consumers in 2019 down to four in ten (41%) over the six months to September 2020.

In search of familiar foods, sales of processed meat products, including processed poultry and red meat main meal components, rose by 18% during 2020 and are estimated to be worth £3.7 billion.

Breakfast and barbecue favourites, bacon (+18%), sausages (+20%) and burgers (+26%), all benefited from the rise in scratch cooking and shift towards eating at home brought on by the pandemic.

Increased rates of homeworking have also been driving a rise in at-home lunches which helped push the sales of cooked sliced meat/poultry, such as ham, which rose 9% in 2020. Having been in decline for a number of years, stockpiling of canned meat led to a resurgence in sales in 2020, increasing 22%. This comes as 58% of meat/poultry eaters say that meals that contain processed meat products are “comforting.”

Whilst the flexitarian movement has faltered during the pandemic, Mintel research notes an increase in the number of Brits who acknowledge the impact that eating meat has on the environment. In 2018, just a quarter (25%) of Brits agreed that eating less meat is better for the environment, but this shot up to 42% in 2020.

“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. 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,” Mintel global food & drink analyst Edward Bergen said.

“But the setback for the flexitarian movement is likely to be very short-lived. 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.”

Eaten by half (50%) of all Brits, meat substitutes’ usage is strongly skewed towards the younger generation, peaking at 65% of 16-24s, and is limited among over-65s (26%).

48% of meat substitute users prefer products which are fully plant-based or vegan, over those that contain animal-sourced ingredients such as dairy and eggs, rising to 57% of Millennials. Despite this, veganism remains decidedly niche, with just under 2% of the population following this diet.

“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 from this trend,” Bergen added.

Mintel’s research was carried out among 2,000 internet users aged 16 and over.

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