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Meat Market Malaise: Continuing Decline in Fresh Meat Consumption

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There is no rose-tinting the issue - meat has had a terrible start to the year. There have been warnings from scientific quarters about dementia, diabetes and cancer, and new government guidelines encouraging consumers to curb their red meat intake have come at a time when meat consumption is already tumbling across Western Europe and North America. The high-protein trend, which is currently all the rage, is stemming the decline to some extent, but, in the long run, the meat industry is unlikely to recover lost volumes.

Meat is Not Good for You

In January, the Belgian Superior Health Council, a scientific advisory body to the Belgian government, recommended that no more than 500g of fresh red meat should be consumed in a week per person in order to ward off illnesses like colorectal cancer.

February saw the publication of a study carried out by the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, which made a link between the consumption of advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which are compounds formed when meat is cooked, and Alzheimer’s disease. Admittedly, this was a mouse study rather than one involving human subjects, but it certainly added fuel to the fire.

The major blow came in March when the University of South California, after having carried out a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, published a study in the journal Cell Metabolism, concluding that the risk of death from cancer in people aged under 65 who were consuming high levels of animal protein was quadruple that of people whose protein intake was derived from plant sources, and that their overall risk of dying from any other cause was double. The survey included almost 6,400 people aged 50+, stretching over an 18-year period.

Seemingly in direct response to this latest chink in meat’s reputation, the American Meat Institute urged the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee to take into consideration that meat, by virtue of offering a range of vitamins, minerals and micronutrients in highly bioavailable form, was making an invaluable contribution to the human diet.

However, it is hard to ignore that, over the past decades, a plethora of evidence has emerged suggesting that vegetarians live longer and healthier lives than meat eaters. It seems that the only time meat really makes a positive health contribution is when people’s overall diet is of poor quality, eg if they are overly reliant on one single staple crop, resulting in nutritional deficiencies.

This unfortunate scenario mostly applies to consumers who cannot afford a varied diet, never mind purchase meat on a regular basis. In other words, nutritional problems are down to a family’s economic resources, lack of access to food and also education, rather than the absence of meat in their diet per se.

Western Europe and North America Turn Away from Meat

What worries the meat industry is that the “eat less meat” message is no longer just an abstract public health issue propagated by academics and vegan activists. People in highly developed and, arguably, “meat saturated” economies are actually turning away from meat in their droves. Not necessarily to go fully vegetarian, mind, but many are reducing their meat consumption significantly, either by opting for more entirely meat-free meals, meat-free days or by reducing portion sizes.

The financial crisis of 2008 may have kicked off the trend by forcing consumers to slash their weekly grocery budgets, but now the growing recognition that eating large quantities of animal protein is not conducive to health is serving to maintain meat’s downward trajectory.

Our recently published fresh food data show that in 2013 overall fresh meat consumption in Western Europe continued to fall, albeit marginally. Beef (and veal), however, which is widely considered to be the “unhealthiest” type of meat due to its comparatively high saturated fat content, posted a more definite 2% decline. A similar pattern was evident in North America. Even though overall fresh meat volumes posted weak growth of nearly 1% in 2013 – making it the most dynamic year of the 2008-2013 review period – beef and veal shrank by 1%, with an 11% decline over the review period.

Saved by the High-Protein trend, for Now

The message that eating a meat-centric diet (and an animal protein-centric diet in general) is a recipe for chronic disease and a curtailed lifespan is getting stronger by the minute. Interestingly, this is at loggerheads with the one health and wellness trend that is currently gaining the most momentum in North America and Europe, namely the high-protein trend. A growing number of consumers are currently adopting high-protein eating with the primary objective of weight management in mind.

Meat is arguably the most convenient way of adding protein to a meal, and this is probably what will stop meat consumption from plummeting even further in North America and Western Europe in 2014. However, this will not save meat in the long term. Indeed, ingredients manufacturers are already coming up with innovative ways of making plant-based protein more convenient and ubiquitous in food and beverage products. It is only a matter of time until consumers adapt and start switching from high animal protein to high plant protein. The only real growth markets for the meat industry in the long term are the world’s emerging and developing economies.

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