IF you are in the red meat business, it seems you are also in the business of world event monitoring, social value tracking and, quite frankly, keeping up with fashion.
Research is showing 28 per cent of Australian meat eaters are likely, in next 12 to 24 months, to reduce the amount they consume.
What’s driving that trend is a complex web of perceptions about everything from farming to what the future holds, according to consumer trend experts and economists.
Fast-changing red meat consumption patterns has been identified as one of the key strategic risks facing processors and exporters of Australian beef and lamb.
Industry research and development organisation the Australian Meat Processor Corporation (AMPC) lists it alongside other big challenges including international competition, the regulatory environment and climate change.
Experts in the field outlined trends, research findings and some of the fascinating drivers of consumer choices at the AMPC’s inaugural national conference, called The Vital Ingredient, in Sydney this week.
The Australian Institute of Food Science and Technology’s general manager industry services Sarah Hyland told processors not to underestimate the effects of world events on consumer social values and their attitude to food.
A phrase had been coined by trend watching organisations called the FUD factor, which reflects the fact that fear, uncertainty and doubt had played a massive role in consumer motivation in recent times, she said.
Events like the 9/11 terrorism attacks on the United States, the global financial crisis from 2007 and even this year’s Brexit had significantly shaped consumer attitudes, she said.
“They have had a major impact on people’s confidences and the way they think about their lives,” Ms Hyland said.
“We all got scared and that is reflected in all parts of our lives, including food consumption. “We looked to the past because it’s safe - you know how things end - and thus, retrospective fashion was adopted.”
The hipster arrived. Kellogg’s relaunched coco pops in vintage packaging.
Those who understood, and tapped into, that trend of attitudes appeared to prosper.
“Fear is a really potent, effective campaign - it’s absolutely what got Trump elected in the US,” Ms Hyland said.
The momentum is starting to shift, however, and trends are moving out of the retrospective and more towards seeking to establish a legacy, she said.
That is being driven by millennials looking to have a greater influential role in society.
What that means to the red meat business is the idea of sustainability is becoming a big driver of purchasing patterns.
Everything from animal welfare and environment-friendly farming systems to reducing food wastage and low food miles comes under that ‘sustainable’ banner.
“Australians have their hand up to ask where their food is coming from,” Ms Hyland said.
And the food sector is reacting.
Fast food chain McDonald's took out a full page advertisement in the New York Times last year listing all the measures they took to meet that demand, from using real buttermilk to ensuring burgers were 100pc beef.
Another example presented by Ms Hyland was a Sydney restaurant that goes as far as to say they ensure the people they do business with - their suppliers -are on the same page as they are ethically.
While it is still price and taste that drives purchase decisions - always has been and probably always will be be - the reason it is so important to pay attention to these trends is they are effectively becoming ‘hygiene factors’, according to Ms Hyland.
“Consumers are coming to expect you will deliver on these regardless,” she said.
Economist Wendy Umberger, executive director with the Centre for Global Food and Resources at the University of Adelaide, calls those food traits linked with ethical and social values ‘credence attributes’ and says there is danger in the fact consumers misconstrue them.
Research has shown they are identified with healthier, higher quality food, she said.
“If you are a producer who has invested in, say, animal welfare accreditation and have changed your farming system, all it takes is a shock media event - like the Four Corners show with live trade - and it can quickly erode all of the value,” she said.
Ms Umberger said the trend towards eating less meat, occurring at a rate of around 3pc per annum, was driven by the credence attribute trend, along with the rise of vegetarianism and flexitarianism (the occasional vegetarian).
“Roy Morgan data suggests the number of vegetarians increased 20pc between 2009 and 2014,” she said.
Research shows vegetarians are most likely to be female, young and educated.
Why are they not eating meat?
In recent surveys, 60pc said for animal welfare reasons, 38pc due to to health concerns and the other big factor was concern about the environment, according to Prof Umberger.
The same research indicated 28pc of meat eaters were likely, in the next 12 to 24 months, to reduce meat consumption further.
In the past 12 months, those same people had reduced their beef consumption 46pc, chicken 9pc and lamb 21pc.