CHANGING consumer behaviour on the back of living with a far greater degree of ongoing uncertainty is throwing up both tailwinds and headwinds for the red meat industry.
More home cooking, online food purchasing, shopping locally and seeking out trusted brands are some of the trends that now appear to have become entrenched, consumer studies are indicating.
Leaders of beef sustainability work both in Australia and globally gave overviews at a recent webinar of how consumer buying has been affected through COVID which largely point to growing momentum for credentials in ethical and environmentally-conscious food production.
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Ruaraidh Petre, executive director of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, said consumer behaviour had shifted in many ways.
The move to buying local was widespread, he said, and was being driven by people looking towards what they felt they could trust.
"Consumers are becoming increasingly interested in transparency. They are asking more questions about where their food is coming from and how it is being processed," he said.
"There is increased interest in the more extensive, low input, organic systems."
As the pandemic spread, international bodies, such as the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) increased reporting on the relationship between livestock and zoonosis, Mr Petre said.
"While in this case, livestock had nothing to do with the pandemic, there has been a lift in the level of interest in the role livestock systems play to avoid zoonosis - people are asking the question about whether there is potential for that in the future," he said.
Tess Herbert, from the Australian Beef Sustainability Framework, said sustainability may be thought of as a slow-burn 'but in fact as we emerge from first wave of the pandemic, it is becoming more and more important to consumers and customers.'
The renewed focus on who produces beef and how they do it, the consumer preference for brands with purpose and broader community benefit and the continued improvements year-on-year on sustainability priority areas identified by the Australian beef industry were creating forward momentum, she said.
How change unfolded
When COVID initially made itself felt in Australia, it sparked a surge in domestic retail demand for food.
"There was some level of turning to comfort foods - mince meat was a big seller," Ms Herbert said.
Indeed, Mr Petre said in his home country of New Zealand, mince has been priced higher than fillet steak in supermarkets at some points this year.
By June, financial security concerns and increasing pressure on household budgets were the key drivers in purchasing behaviour changes. Consumers were spending more time cooking and preparing food at home and there was a jump in online ordering.
That helped sustain demand for finished cattle from April to June.
Research was confirming consumers gravitate to brands they trust in a crisis, Ms Herbert said.
In particular they are looking for branding around sustainability and Australian beef is in the box seat - it's associated with high quality, food safety, ethical and sustainable production, she said.
By July, there had been a softening of beef retail demand compared to April and May, however it was still stronger than the same period last year.
Come August and most food marketers agree the shift to home consumption is entrenched, which means Australians are settling into a 'new normal' for red meat purchases.
The latest beef export figures, while reflecting a drop in shipments, still demonstrate enduring demand for safe, sustainable, quality beef, according to industry leaders.
There are challenges with access to markets, and freight and logistic concerns, but the demand fundamentals are largely considered strong.
Not about more meat eating
Supply will remain a major challenge for Australia's beef industry from here. As the herd rebuild ramps up, there will be limited availability of slaughter animals.
For producers, balancing cash flow issues with expansion will be the challenge.
That may put sustainability efforts on the backburner.
So why, at a time when demand for our product is so high and supply short, do we need a continued focus on sustainability?
"It's about becoming a more trusted source of protein, one that people are comfortable and even excited about consuming because they have confidence it is produced in an ethical and sustainable manner," Ms Herbert said.
"It's not about getting people to eat more meat.
"It's about addressing the issue of where people's concerns are around our product."
The aim was to provide answers, with evidence, to questions about beef production practices.
"As a producer, it sometimes feels to us that our message is missing in the chatter about the likes of methane and our impact on the environment," Ms Herbert said.
"Our verified stories are missing in the debate."
She applauded those within the cattle industry who responded recently to the United Nations Eat Less Meat social media campaign.
Agriculture Minister David Littleproud directly quoted from sustainability framework data in his response, she said.
"That's how industry should see the framework - as a tool they can use when they get claims about our production systems or our product which have holes them," she said.
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