COVID-19 altered the trajectory of many things in our lives, from how we work to how we eat. To gain insight into current trajectories in the food industry, Nicholas Fereday, senior analyst of consumer foods at Rabobank, conducted a readership survey asking the question, “What over the last twelve months have you changed your mind about?”
The responses yielded several major themes, summarized here with some supporting data. For a more in-depth discussion of these themes and more, read Fereday’s articles: “Talking Points: What Have We Changed Our Minds About?” Parts One and Two.
The first major change was ideas about how long the impacts of COVID-19 would last. Fereday notes, “It appears that 2021 was the year that many of us realized COVID-19 isn’t going away.” For the food industry, this presents opportunities as well as challenges. On the plus side, consumers are continuing to innovate how they shop, cook, and eat. On the minus side, some projects and initiatives (like building new facilities) are taking longer than they used to.
Related to that is the nature of inflation. According to the most recent CPI report, the cost of food at home has increased 7.4% over the past year, led by the index for meat, poultry, fish, and eggs, which has jumped 12.2%. While the current inflation has been painted as a transitory phenomenon, respondents have their doubts, which are leading to questions about food affordability.
People have also changed their minds about alternative proteins – both the plant-based variety and the cultivated (cell-cultured) variety.
Sales of plant-based meat alternatives seemed headed to the moon, and then the growth not only stopped, but sales started to decline. Fereday identifies a variety of factors that may have led to the sea change, including the fact that the novelty has worn off, questions about the healthfulness and sustainability of the products, and the price disparity with traditional meats. On the cultivated meat front, these products once seemed an inevitability, but now respondents aren’t so sure, in large part because of the difficulty of producing it affordably at scale.
Ideas around packaged food have also changed, and Fereday notes the industry is “(cautiously) optimistic.” With consumers shifting rapidly to eating nearly all of their meals at home, coupled with stockpiling behavior, packaged food saw a resurgence early in the pandemic. According to IRI, retail CPG sales grew 10.6% in 2020. While the growth rate declined in 2021, sales remain elevated from pre-pandemic levels. Respondents think this trend will continue thanks to a variety of reasons, such as the fact that many people will continue to work from home even after the pandemic is over.
Perhaps related to the renewed interest in packaged food is the rapid growth in online shopping. The pandemic spurred a fast transition to ecommerce and DTC. Some respondents think the future is all online (“Traditional grocery is toast,” one said), while others focused on the need for brands to create a seamless omnichannel experience. In any case, online options will continue to be crucial.
Sustainability has also gotten a fresh look. Fereday observes that food companies now see sustainability initiatives as an opportunity – not just to help the planet, but also to boost profits by giving consumers what they want. However, challenges remain, including a lack of standardization for verification and reporting and the ever-important question of who pays.
And, of course, there’s the supply chain. The industry has realized that the supply chain is not nearly as resilient and flexible as they thought it was, while consumers have a new appreciation for actually being able to find their favorite products on the shelves. Some industry respondents observed that the problems in larger supply chains have created the opportunity for smaller local food producers to be more competitive.