Sylvain Charlebois: Pandemic helping rewrite food fundamentals

Date posted: January 7, 2021

Sylvain Charlebois

Sylvain Charlebois

He's known as the "food professor", an educator in food distribution and policy at Canada's Dalhousie University and senior director of the innovative Agri-Food Analytics Lab.

Sylvain Charlebois spends his days on "predictive analytics", looking at the future of food.

Many will know him from frequent mainstream media appearances. He is also one of the most cited people on the planet on food supply chain management, food value chains and traceability.

So when Charlebois brought his food message to the 2021 Banff Pork Seminar Jan. 5 in the middle of the global pandemic there was valuable information for the pork sector.

Legacies of COVID

Bottom line says Charlebois is that the pandemic is helping to rewrite the rules of the food industry across Canada and around the world. Pork producers are tough, he reminded his audience. They know the meaning of crisis, of riding the ups and downs of a cyclical industry.

Their challenge today is to read the changes coming in the food industry and prepare to capitalize on them. Here are key points he identified.

Consumer confidence. If the consumer is confident meat economics is not an issue, he says. A lot of people are fearful these days and food service and food retail has to help make people feel comfortable.

Pork can be well positioned because it is in middle ground, it is kind to people on a tight budget.

The fiscal sandwich. Expect meat prices to go up at retail in 2021 and that could create a "fiscal sandwich" when disposal income shrinks with increased taxation and loss or change of jobs.

Fewer nomads. One legacy of COVID is tele-commuting. People move out of cities, employers allow employees to work from home. So consumers are now less of a nomad, and don't stop for that coffee and don't go to the store or restaurants as much. They will stay home more.

More literate consumer. Gardening and cooking will drive a new, more literate consumer. One in five Canadians started a garden in 2020. They know Mother Nature is not perfect. People are also cooking more. They know more recipes and food alternatives, and are growing their own food.

A democratized supply chain. COVID completely changed the rules of the supply chain and made the line between retail and food service disappear. Everything is up for grabs and that won't change.

Farmer, processor, retailer or distributor all have direct access to the consumer by e-commerce. That sector grew by 4.5 percent in 2020; that's $10 billion worth of food.

Kraft Heinz opened a restaurant in Toronto. PC Chef is supplying meal kits where the restaurant experience can be completed at home. In last six months 65 percent of Canadians have ordered food online and 48 percent are thinking of ordering food online after the pandemic.

Grocers are investing billions of dollars to improve service online and improve delivery service. They will continue to get better. In most markets consumers can now order groceries and have them in a couple of hours. That was not possible before the pandemic.

Millennials and Generation Z will drive e-commerce. Farmers can get in on the action too. In the last six months of 2020 more people have bought food directly from farmers through online farmers markets.

The rise of plant protein. In 2020 meat became more expensive and history shows dramatic price increases can spook consumers. In 2014 for example, beef prices went up considerably and this was a major reason for the rise in veganism and plant based dieting.

Once you engrain the idea meat is expensive you have a problem. In 2020 more consumers looked at plant protein. Not all processed food, but things like lentils. As well plant based solutions are getting cheaper.

Getting adventurous with meats. The past year also saw a real move to specialty meats such as duck bison, rabbit and elk. Duck is up 22 percent, bison 197 percent.

Restaurants were closed and people saw prices were up so they said they might as well try something new.

Value added is really important for the pork industry. People love meat but they also love value. Pork has gained currency in the past few years.

Charlebois says "My generation cooked the heck out of it. It was not very good. Now we are better educated on how to handle pork. People are seeing how to prepare pork as a high value product."

Local food, partnerships will grow. Pork is produced in many areas and can capitalize on this trend. Economics of food will be rough for a while, but pork remains an affordable, accessible food protein that people love and know better. If you empower consumers to get more value from pork you will benefit.

Partnerships will be critical. Pork needs to get into people's homes and to do that producers need to partner with meal kits providers, grocers and restaurants so they can deliver a high quality product.

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