Canada

Beef is still a staple, but 1 in 4 Canadians considered cutting it during COVID: survey

‘Canadians are still committed to beef, but there are some clouds on the horizon for the beef industry’

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Beef has been a hot topic lately, and not just because people are getting ready to fire up their barbecues on May Two-Four. On April 26, cooking website Epicurious announced it would not publish any new beef recipes “in an effort to encourage more sustainable cooking.”

In a similar vein, three Michelin-star New York restaurant Eleven Madison Park recently declared it will reopen on June 10 with an exclusively vegan menu. Citing environmental concerns, gone are the likes of dry-aged veal, suckling pig and whole roasted duck. The price for a meal, however, will remain the same: $405 including tip, but excluding beverages.

“The way we have sourced our food, the way we’re consuming our food, the way we eat meat, it is not sustainable,” Daniel Humm, chef-owner of Eleven Madison Park, said on NPR’s How I Built This podcast. “And that is not an opinion. This is just a fact. So we decided that our restaurant will be 100 per cent plant-based.”

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These high-profile announcements may have sparked debate, but will they affect people’s food choices? A new study from Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab (AAL) suggests that as far as the vast majority of Canadians are concerned, beef is still a staple.

The AAL surveyed 1,503 Canadians earlier this month to determine how committed they are to beef. In short: very committed. Results suggest that 92 per cent of Canadians are beef eaters and 65 per cent are dedicated ones at that, partaking at least once a week. Alberta has the highest rate of consumption (73 per cent); British Columbia the lowest (58 per cent).

A mere eight per cent of Canadians don’t eat beef at all, but the AAL’s findings suggest this could change. During the past year, one in four Canadians considered cutting beef from their diets. Nearly half (47 per cent) of respondents believe that the number of people quitting beef will increase over time, and 44 per cent consider this a move in the right direction.

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“Canadians are still committed to beef, but there are some clouds on the horizon for the beef industry,” says Prof. Sylvain Charlebois, lead author of the report and lab director.

Choosing not to eat meat is still a rarity in Canada, adds Janet Music, AAL’s research program coordinator. “Meat is very much in the norm, and not at risk of not being in the norm. Even though 25 per cent of people have thought about reducing or eliminating beef, that’s the minority.”

This percentage was higher in younger generations, with 31 per cent of people under the age of 35 having considered cutting beef from their diets in the last 12 months. Overall, the top motivation for contemplating this change was health (53 per cent), followed by the environment (46 per cent) and concerns about animal welfare (32 per cent).

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“The environment is the rationale presented (by Epicurious and Eleven Madison Park) to make some of these decisions. And it’s number two on the list for consumers; number one is health,” says Charlebois. “But when you ask the younger generations, the environment is very much up there. They’re about choice and holistic factors beyond health.”

Dietary preferences have remained stable over the last year, according to the report: 73 per cent of Canadians claim to have none; seven per cent consider themselves flexitarian (vegetarians who occasionally eat meat and fish); and three per cent identify as vegan.

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By and large, Canadians are meat eaters, Music says — but today, animal protein has more competition. People might have steak for dinner on a Monday and falafel on a Tuesday, and think nothing of it. She anticipates an increase in the number of flexitarians as plant-based eating becomes normalized.

“You are just expanding your menu. And that’s really what the plant-based movement has done, I think successfully, is expanded the menu for proteins,” says Music. “If you can move people away from thinking about meat as an identity, and meat as a protein (instead), then you would be more successful in implanting these ideas of incorporating more vegetables into your diet.”

Charlebois adds: “Protein-wise, there’s an increasing number of consumers hedging (their bets) right now. ‘We’ll go for steak but maybe we should go plant-based for a while for the planet, for my health, for animals themselves.’ It seems to be they’re not giving up on beef, but they’re keeping their options open.”

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The survey showed that enjoyment of beef primarily comes down to taste (69 per cent), but respondents also appreciate it as a good source of protein (55 per cent) and even a status symbol (12 per cent). Two Canadians in five consider beef a meaningful cultural food, central to celebrations with family and friends.

Culture influences food choices, and for people who immigrated to Canada, the role of beef in their home countries could colour their consumption, Charlebois says: “The Canadian population is much more diverse and I think protein demand is becoming more diverse as a result of that, too.”

When it came to factors that might influence people to give up beef, price and health concerns tied for first place (49 per cent), followed by reports on the effects of beef production on the environment (44 per cent), and the availability of more desirable plant-based options (40 per cent).

Media depictions of alternative lifestyles (23 per cent), celebrity influence (19 per cent) and diet apps (13 per cent) ranked lowest on the list of influencing factors. Celebrity chefs may have large platforms, but amplification doesn’t necessarily equal authority.

“Price and health are still the number one reasons why people make food decisions,” says Music. “And so even if every Michelin-starred restaurant eliminated meat from their menu, I don’t know that that would have the biggest influence on the national diet.”

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