It’s been a tough few years for Canada’ meat sector. In addition to some widely publicized product recalls, several other large factors have led to a decline in meat consumption, says Carol Gardin. “This trend is due to the aging of our population, as well as changing patterns of immigration,” says the manager of Corporate Affairs at Brampton, Ont.-based Maple Lodge Farms, Canada’s largest independent, family owned chicken processor.
At the same time, Gardin believes the perceived effects of recalls on meat consumption may be greater than they actually are. “There may be a small contingent of the population that will stop eating meat and find different sources of protein [after a recall],” she says, “but as a general rule, effects are generally not long-lasting because consumer eating habits are generally well ingrained.” Gardin points to a web-based poll conducted by the Canadian Food Safety Institute after last fall’s XL Foods beef recall, the largest recall in Canada’s history. Two in five Canadians claimed they reduced their consumption of beef at that time, but Gardin notes that it’s difficult to conclude that this was due to worry over food safety, or simply due to there being fewer products on the market after a recall.
Recalls aside, within the entire protein sector there has been a consumer preference shift to chicken, something Gardin thinks is likely due to rising health and lifestyle concerns. “Chicken is easier to digest and generally considered leaner than pork or beef,” she says. “Additionally, recent patterns of immigration indicate a likelihood that these new Canadians come from regions where they are more likely to have dietary preferences for chicken.” Retailers, Gardin notes, are therefore offering innovative chicken products and recipes featuring authentic ethnic and regional flavouring.
Marty Brett, senior Communications officer for the Chicken Farmers of Canada (CFC), agrees that the ability of the chicken sector to offer new products is a major reason why chicken is currently the number-1 protein in Canada. “Consumers are asking for different types of chicken products,” he says, “and that evolution is demonstrated in the trend from a market dominated by whole-bird sales to one that offers consumers many choices of cuts and husbandry methods.” Indeed, while Maple Lodge Farm’s marketing efforts have concentrated on promoting chicken as healthy to all consumers, they are also targeting the ethnic demographic – specifically Muslim consumers. “We are the leading supplier of halal chicken in Canada [and] we have been processing halal chicken for more than 20 years,” notes Gardin, “but it is of particular significance now as the Muslim population in Canada continues to grow at a rapid rate.”
Other ethnic population changes in Canada are also leading to the consumption of protein choices besides beef. “As indicated in the 14th edition of the NPD Group’s Eating Patterns in Canada report, Asian Canadians are less likely to include beef in meals prepared at home, instead favouring pork, poultry, and fish and seafood,” says Joel Gregoire, NPD’s foodservice industry analyst. “As Asian cultures become more pervasive in Canadian culture and continue to represent a greater share of the population, it’s possible that meats aside from beef will continue to grow in prominence.”
To market to health-conscious Canadians, Maple Lodge started reducing the sodium content in its products several years ago. In 2011 the company launched a line of “simple recipe” natural deli meats called May Family Farms, with celery salt as a natural preservative. “Additionally, we were amongst the first manufacturers in Canada to incorporate High Pressuring Processing (HPP) into the manufacturing process of our ready-to-eat meats,” says Gardin. HPP is a cold pasteurization technique that uses extreme high-pressure water to significantly reduce the risk of bacterial contamination. “It also provides fresher taste and longer shelf-life than conventional food preservation techniques,” she notes.
On the beef front, new information about nitrites may change perceptions about the healthiness of prepared and grilled offerings when eating out or at home. “Recent research is providing a powerful scientific foundation upon which to establish a new nitrite and human health paradigm,” explains Ron Davidson, director of Government and Media Relations at the Canadian Meat Council. He says that as a product of enzymatic synthesis in humans, nitric oxide has been found to control blood pressure, immune response, wound repair, and neurological functions. The production of nitric oxide and nitrite by the body may also prevent various types of cardiovascular disease, including hypertension, atherosclerosis and stroke. “These findings are providing evidence for an assertion that nitrite should be reclassified as an essential molecule with identifiable medicinal benefits,” says Davidson, noting that what’s now needed is further research, as well as education of the public, politicians, health care providers and the media about nitrite’s fundamental and critical biological role.
According to Canada Beef, beef consumption remained within norms throughout fall 2012, in part due to the organization’s many web-based initiatives. “Our extensive blog outreach program has dramatically increased our online footprint, allowing more Canadians than ever to find recipes, nutrition facts, cooking videos, step-by-step lessons, and the other valuable tools,” says Heather Travis, Canada Beef’s director of Public Relations. “In fact, in recent months Canada Beef’s online activities have seen record numbers of Canadians joining the conversation.” Travis says a December tweet about how to cook the perfect holiday roast had Canadian beef as a national Twitter “trending topic” for over two hours, allowing the organization to reach more than 220,000 Canadians. December also saw a significant spike in website traffic to Canada Beef’s consumer site. www.beefinfo.org.
In addition, Canada Beef has a monthly “Make It Beef Club” e-newsletter featuring recipes and other information, distributed to over 35,000 Canadians. “We are also actively encouraging our beef-farming families to reach out to consumers to share the entire beef story, right from farm to fork,” says Travis. A Canada Beef publication, Made In Canada, featuring recipes and beef farm family profiles, was recently distributed in partnership with Kraft Canada and Costco to more than1.5 million Canadians. The organization also has a wide range of programs and outreach efforts involving the health care industry. “One example is our doctor detailing initiative,” says Travis. “This initiative allows [us] to directly speak with over 1,500 doctors about the fact that Canadian beef is part of a heart healthy diet, with the solid research supporting this, and provide credible information for these doctors to provide their patients.”
Pork Marketing Canada also runs a consumer site (www.putporkonyourfork.com) with recipes, health information and much more. The Canadian Pork Council released a report in late 2011 entitled Building a Durable Future In the Canadian Hog Industry, which outlines plans for additional involvement in national domestic market penetration programs and strategies.
The CFC and other associations aiming to increase chicken consumption are also heavily using the Internet for promotion. For example, with the help of registered dietitians, CFC recently updated its seven-year-old nutrition factsheet series with a fresh design, and added four new factsheets based on consumer health trends and research in nutrition science. CFC’s new online health portal for health professionals and the public offers tools such as food journals and a comparison feature where visitors can compare 11 different cuts of chicken against cuts of beef, veal and more.
Although overall annual chicken sales have remained consistent over the past few years, the industry sees no reason to rest on its laurels. There is always a need, says Brett, to continue evolving in response to consumer demand. This, he says, “reinforces that the industry should continue to fund poultry research into new technology and innovation.”