Goodbye steak, hello mung beans! Overheated food prices have Canadians buying less meat
Consumers are changing their shopping and dining habits to cut down on spending, researchers say
At the dinner table in Susana Tobar's household, meat is usually the star of the show.
The family of committed meat lovers from Calgary loves to fire up the barbecue for a nice steak dinner, she said, and chicken is in frequent rotation, too.
But these days their meals look a lot different.
"So let's say instead of just eating, like, the chicken on the plate with the salad, we try to make it with pasta so we have more food." With their animal proteins cut up into little pieces, she said, that pasta dish might last for two or three days.
Their Costco trips have changed since prices shot up.
"We used to buy everything there, like chicken, shrimps, salmon, pork as well … five or six types of things," she told Cost of Living. Now they spend the same amount but only take home three of those proteins "because everything is so expensive now."
That's a pattern playing out in kitchens and on grocery lists across the country. According to a poll conducted by Ipsos in July, 47 per cent of meat eaters polled said they planned to cut back on their meat consumption this year, with cost the most common reason for doing so.
Now food researchers are saying that after years of being told to eat our veggies, inflation could be the reason we actually do it.
Kathy Perrotta, vice-president of market strategy and understanding at Ipsos, has been tracking what Canadian consumers eat and drink for more than 20 years.
Since Ipsos first started asking Canadians about their meat-eating intentions in 2018, there's been a 25 per cent increase in respondents answering that they plan to cut back.
And their reasons for doing so have shifted. Even in 2021 and 2022, said Perrotta, "health [and] environmental concerns top the reasons that people were looking to cut back on meat intake.
"But over the past year, interestingly, the cost of meat has risen to the No. 1 position — and not really surprising, given the pressure on the wallet these days with regard to rising interest rates, rising food prices."
Perrotta said these factors may mean we've arrived at an "inflection point" where the plant-based food movement will have a resurgence, like it did prior to the pandemic when there was a lot of interest in plant-based meat alternatives such as Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger.
Food economist Mike von Massow said it's not surprising that people are changing their food habits in response to higher prices.
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"I think people are shopping differently," said von Massow, an associate professor at the University of Guelph's Food, Agricultural & Resource Economics department. "I think people are eating out in restaurants less than they were before.
"I know lots of families are eating smaller portion sizes. And that's what we're being encouraged to do by the Canadian Food Guide, anyway. You know, half your plate should be fresh fruits and vegetables."
Other households are opting to eat plant-based one or two days a week, embracing Meatless Mondays and the like, he said.
Perrotta calls this kind of meat-reducing hybrid diet "lessetarian" — you're not vegetarian, but you're eating less meat.
Lessetarians still eat meat and fish and poultry, she said, "but have communicated to us in our reporting that they're looking to cut back on their weekly intake."
Von Massow said while factors other than the cost of meat are likely at play, the last year has seen "a slight increase in the proportion of people who are identifying as vegan and vegetarian."
In an email to CBC, Sebastien Martel, co-founder of the Vegan Society of Canada, said the organization is not unhappy that people are cutting back on meat due to cost, but that it "will always encourage people" to make more of a commitment.
"In general, a financial motivation does not provide a strong and stable foundation to support a vegan lifestyle," he said.
Von Massow noted that the way Canadians adapt to higher protein prices is going to depend on their circumstances, including their confidence in the kitchen.
"Some people can adapt by cooking more or cooking more from scratch or trying new ingredients, whereas others find that more difficult."
Some, like Ala Salma, also from Calgary, find themselves not only eating less meat, but turning more often to fast food. "I'm trying to go out for more fast food right now because grocery prices are so high."
Salma estimates he's eating about 25 per cent less meat and vegetables because of cost, and filling the gap not only with more grains, but with "stuff like cereal and junk food and chocolate bars."
Alexander Greatrix has a similar story. "I've honestly figured out that the cost of groceries is the same as getting a simple meal at McDonalds."
Buying straight from the farmer
Zach Vanthournout, who runs a small dairy beef operation in Fredericton Junction, N.B., says he's noticed sales are down even though people could find price relief by buying straight from the farmer.
"I'm just wondering why people aren't buying local," he said. "If you buy from us, prime rib in the bulk box is $8 a pound. ... It's $40 a kilogram [$18 per pound] in the stores and I'm just not understanding that."
He suggests people search online for "beef farmer near me" and pair up with another household to share a quarter of beef.
Brenna Grant, executive director of Canfax and Canfax Research Services, the market information arm of the Canadian Cattle Association, said beef prices have been impacted by a tighter supply. Droughts in Canada in 2021, and the U.S. in 2022, forced producers to sell off more animals and get by with smaller herds.
She said the overall trend in the food and beverage sector has been for people to buy less than they normally would.
"It means product is still being bought, just less of it," she said. "And that makes perfect sense for the limited supply situation."
For those trying to rely less on pricey meats to feed their families, Von Massow said being willing to learn a few more tricks in the kitchen can help.
"Google something: 'What do I do with this ingredient?' Be willing to try a wider range of things," said von Massow.
While everything is more expensive these days, some foods have gone up less in cost than others, he said.
"So shop around. Be adventurous. Try things. You'd be surprised at how good some of these things taste, and how much you can save by looking for the things that are seasonal and on special."
Produced by Ellis Choe