Has COVID-19 sped up the shift towards plant-based?
Updated: Aug 28
Plant-based foods are increasing in production and widespread availability. Many consumers are switching to a ‘flexitarian’ diet, in a shift that certainly predates the current pandemic. There are a couple of key factors that have put the accelerator in this trend in recent weeks.
In the United States, more than 5,000 foodworkers have been infected with COVID-19 and at least 13 have died (as of April 25th) due to a direct link of working in meat processing centres. This is namely due to meatpacking plants making social distancing essentially impossible due to the nature of work and space between machinery and other employees. Donald Trump however, has enacted the Defense Productions Act to force meat-processing staff back into the plants, despite their safety concerns. His statement included that they are “essential” to the country’s infrastructure. Current closures have led to widespread meat shortages and have led chains like McDonald's Canada to start sourcing foreign meat, local sourcing previously a strategic point of pride.
Plant-based production actually has a competitive advantage during these strange new times. ‘With plant-based meat, supply chain factors are much easier to manipulate" said Bruce Friedrich at the Good Food Institute. The production is more automated and therefore less labour reliant. "As of Monday, 32 per cent of US pork production capacity was offline" whilst "beef production capacity was down by 14 per cent". In contrast sales of plant based meat alternatives were up 265% over an eight-week period.
Beyond working conditions the current crisis has reignited many conversations about meat eating, based on the origins of the virus itself. With Covid-19 and previous pandemics such as SARS, MERS and Ebola all being traced back to human consumption of animals, it seems likely that consumers will be more wary of their food-origins.
In Australia we have recently seen Four n Twenty release a plant based pie, Hungry Jacks a vegan ‘Rebel Whopper’, 711 introduced sandwiches and 2 vegan pastries and McDonald's recently introduced the McVeggie Burger, all further showcasing the increased consumer demand and shifting dietary changes in Australia.
Is this leading to a decline in meat production?
Short answer, yes. However this is not necessarily to be attributed entirely to consumer changes in diet. Whilst data supports that pork, beef, lamb and mutton have declined in consumption it also notes that chicken has increased. Throughout the 60s to 90s, chicken was less widely available whereas now chicken is often the ‘meat’ (or poultry) of choice thanks to brands such as Nandos, KFC, Red Rooster and marketing supporting it as a healthier, leaner meat. Meat prices have also increased, automation within meat processing facilities have also increased which leads to a decline in employment within the industry which can skew our data when simply looking at if ‘production has declined’.
In short, it is safe to assume plant based options and availability of vegan alternatives will only continue to increase globally due to increased demand. Covid-19 is just the latest addition to the list of reasons why consumers are making the switch and may continue to do so longterm.