Kennedy: Meat sells well during COVID

Ian Hadley stocks the meat coolers at Master Deli Marketplace in Broadalbin in April. Credit: Marc Schultz/Staff Photographer

Ian Hadley stocks the meat coolers at Master Deli Marketplace in Broadalbin in April. Credit: Marc Schultz/Staff Photographer

Categories: Business, News

If your supermarket’s meat cases seemed less fulsome in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, new data tell us why.

From the 335 products typically carried in an average store’s meat department, the assortment dipped to a low of 270 in late May, and, as of the end of August, was still down a dozen or so items compared with pre-pandemic levels, according to a report from Chicago-based market researcher IRI.

At the same time, price per pound for meat overall peaked in mid-June, at 60 cents higher than year-ago levels, according to IRI. Some of that was due to supply shortages, which, you’ll recall, occurred when meatpacking facilities were forced to temporarily close or reduce production in the spring as in-plant Covid-19 infections rose.

While meat prices started to moderate in August, they’re still 8 percent above 2019 levels.

As a result, “meat is king” within supermarkets’ so-called fresh perimeter, according to the report, titled “Pandemic Protein Performance,” which IRI produced in September in collaboration with 210 Analytics, a Texas market researcher.

By both dollars and pounds, sales of meat since March have been higher than year-ago levels.

Pre-pandemic, fresh meat sales stood at $45.2 billion, slightly above 2019. From March to July, though, they popped $5.9 billion, rising nearly 35 percent from 2019 levels, according to Anne-Marie Roerink, principal of 210 Analytics.

In a webinar and panel discussion hosted last week by The Food Institute, Roerink walked through the research done with IRI on the report.

She said meat’s performance was all the more impressive because trips to the supermarket dropped after the initial surge of panic buying in March as everyone began to shelter in place in response to the coronavirus. “But when they’re in store, [consumers are] buying a lot of food and that includes meat.”

While the Big Three – beef, chicken and pork – saw significant growth during the pandemic, when plant disruptions tightened their supply, sales of turkey, lamb and “exotic proteins,” such as bison, surged. Turkey sales jumped nearly 40 percent between March and July, according one of Roerink’s slides.

Seafood sales also saw gains, rising 30 percent to 50 percent above year-ago levels through August, then dropping back to stay 20 percent to 30 percent ahead of 2019, according to the report.

Asked about the recent surge in COVID cases and the potential for renewed panic buying, Roerink said she didn’t expect to see replication of the earlier “big spike.”

Webinar panelist Kent Harrison, vice president of fresh meats marketing at Tyson Foods, sounded an optimistic note, suggesting that since the meat industry had already gone through shortages and shutdowns, “we know how to do it better this time.”

“Regardless of how severe the situation becomes, you’ll find our industry reacts with a lot more clarity and will be a lot more effective and efficient,” he added.

Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at [email protected]

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