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Coronavirus pandemic accelerates trends in beef industry

Candace Krebs
After working for the Georgia Beef Council early in her career, Danette Amstein (pictured) co-founded Midan Marketing to provide indepth analysis of consumer trends and educate beef producers on what they mean. She grew up on a diversified family farm near Jetmore, Kansas.

Online sales, food chain transparency and value-added branding are all familiar meat

industry trends that appear to be accelerating in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic,

according to a well-known industry analyst.

Danette Amstein, managing principle with Midan Marketing, based in Mooresville,

North Carolina, provided a marketing education session during the American Hereford

Association’s annual meeting, which was held virtually this year in response to the

pandemic.

Amstein grew up on a diversified family farm near Jetmore, Kansas, where she showed a

Hereford steer to a grand championship at the local fair during her senior year of high

school. Her husband Todd also has a Hereford background; his family operated the

Amstein Hereford Ranch, near Clifton.

While attending Kansas State University and completing an internship in Washington

D.C., Amstein developed an interest in understanding consumers better and saw the need

early on to convey that information back to beef producers.

One of her topics during the AHA convention was making sense of the market upheaval

that’s occurred in 2020.

“It’s just been an unprecedented year,” she said. “I know that’s an overused term but it

really has been that. It has created some unique opportunities for us, but it’s also

accelerated some expectations from consumers.”

From a consumer analyst’s perspective, the current moment represents a “fascinating

intersection” of two diverging influences. Consumers in general are more concerned

about health, nutrition, food quality and food claims, while at the same time they are

more apt to be unemployed or struggling with economic uncertainty.

The silver lining is that consumers are eating more meat, “actually a lot more meat,”

Amstein said. Urban shoppers in particular eat meat more often and keep more of it on

hand than they did in the recent past.

“Right now we’re seeing consumers start to stockpile again,” she noted. “We saw it in the

spring, but we’re starting to see it again. People are keeping more meat on hand, just for

the added sense of security.”

Studies show 62 percent of consumers are experimenting with new ways to cook beef and

learning to use a wider variety of cuts, a result triggered when popular products like

ground beef and chicken breasts ran low in some grocery stores.

Consumers aren’t eating out as much, but when they do eat out they are making meat a

priority, she added.

More people are also ordering their groceries on-line, a trend that could stick around,

with implications for beef producers.

“We need to make sure we are representing our products very well online,” she

emphasized.“COVID-19 was like rocket fuel for online grocery shopping, specifically shopping for meat, We’ve seen a huge increase in orders, but also in the amount of money being

spent per order.”

The pace of the transition has kicked into high gear, but online shopping was already on

the rise, due to the influence of younger generations like the millennials and Gen X, she

said.

“Here’s where our growth potential is, and paying attention to them now is critically

important,” she noted. “The consumer base is very diverse and continues to become more

complex with each new generation.”

Younger generations are typically straddled with more debt, which makes them more

price sensitive than other groups, but they also have a lot of a greater interest in terms like

local, natural and organic, with heightened interest in vegetables and plant-based

consumption.

“They are influenced by the halo effect around plant-based foods, but that’s where we

could help them,” Amstein said.

She sees the opportunity to make inroads because of other eating behaviors they share.

“They are very focused on fitness,” she said. “When they go out to eat, they like to order

different foods and share them.”

They have some parallels with Gen Xers, which are into “trying everything, taking

pictures of it, and being avid food influencers,” she added.

Both groups are very concerned about animal welfare, how animals are fed, and how beef

production affects the environment.

“Our studies show 65 percent of consumers prefer protein from animals raised in humane

conditions, and they are looking for some kind of label or verification to that effect,” she

said.

Sustainability remains “such a confusing topic,” with consumers struggling to define it or

place a value on it, she said.

Environmental impact is part of a broader trend toward “ethically sourced” food, a term

that has been showing up as a bigger piece of the consumer conversation in just the last

12 months, she said.

That in turn underlies demand for more transparency, branding and verification by the

meat industry.

Consumers “are looking for opportunities to feel like they are making an ethical decision

when purchasing animal protein,” she summarized. “Sixty-six percent of meat consumers

are aware of product claims and willing to pay more for it. If it’s been verified, it makes

me feel better about it.”

Beef producers need to think about what that means for their business, she added,

including the opportunities it presents. The breadth, size and diversity of the consuming

market can seem overwhelming, but she said brands like Certified Hereford Beef should

aim to set themselves apart with appealing packaging, websites and social media content.

“You don’t have to service the whole industry,” she said. “Think about what you can say

(about your product) and the target the audience that wants that.”

Brands are a way of creating an identity, building trust and verifying value.

“Being a generalist isn’t going to help you economically to stay in the game,” Amstein

said.

That’s why packers use performance grids, she said. They want to incentivize animals

they know will fit into existing market channels. Smaller producers can access quality

grids by pooling their cattle and putting together truckloads when needed, she said.

During the summer Amstein spent as an intern in Washington D.C., she happened to

room with a vegetarian from Oakland, Calif. By summer’s end, her roommate had agreed

to join Amstein and her father for a steak at the Capital Grille.

Back then consumer education was mostly a tedious one-on-one effort. Now the internet

and social media makes it much easier for beef producers to share positive examples of

daily livestock care and resource management with a broader audience.

“We can take the megaphone and expand that message,” she said. “When we understand

what consumers want to know, then we can tell that story, and we’re in a better position

to hand our operation down to the next generation.”