ARLINGTON, VA. – The first year of the pandemic era, 2020, proved to be a windfall for retail sales of fresh meat.

No surprise: people weren’t going to restaurants, and they were leaning on comfort foods and staples to keep their families fed. The sight of empty meat shelves is now one of the lasting images of the early months of COVID-19.

Surely 2021 couldn’t top 2020, right? Wrong, said Rick Stein, vice president of fresh for Arlington, Va.-based FMI – the Food Industry Association. Through September 2021, meat sales were up 11% over the same time the prior year.

While some of continued higher sales could be linked to inflation, Stein estimated only about 5% was attributable to economic inflation. That means real sales gains of 6% over a year which shattered the numbers of the year before it. Many consumers who ramped up their retail fresh meat purchases in 2020 appear to have continued those buying habits going forward, regardless of the pandemic.

“The story for meat is very positive,” Stein said. “There’s the enjoyment of eating at home with your family, and the cost savings — as expensive as it is, it’s not even close to foodservice.”

Before the pandemic, Stein said, the term “center of the plate” was losing favor when it came to describing meat’s role in consumers’ diets. The pandemic changed that. The “Center of the plate” mindset is back in vogue.

Meat was always the top performer in perimeter sales at retail, but in recent years produce has started to get closer. But during COVID, and seemingly going forward, meat has reasserted itself as the top dog, Stein said.

But that doesn’t mean that customers are now all about comfort and don’t care about health, he added. Many Americans who are eating meat more often than they used to are eating smaller portions.

“With portion control, they no longer see meat as an enemy,” he said. “They’ve learned to incorporate the right types of protein. It’s not black and white, it’s on a scale, and they can make a choice to choose something better for them. They’re conscious of health but they’re still partaking in the category.”

Clean-label, grass-fed, organic and “all-natural” are other health-related meat categories where FMI is tracking steady growth. Products with claims, Stein said, are outperforming the meat case as a whole.

More time to cook, more meats to try

Consumers have also significantly expanded their palates, thanks to all that extra time spent cooking at home.

“The variety of meats being bought has really expanded — veal, lamb, different cuts of beef,” Stein said. “You used to have most of your sales in the middle meats — rib eyes, sirloins, strips. Now you’re seeing other cuts, and things like fajita mixes, and grounds. There’s huge growth in grounds, and not just beef.”

After breaking all records in 2020, most meat industry experts thought those numbers would never be topped, said Anne-Marie Roerink, president of San Antonio-based 210 Analytics.

“And yet, here we are,” she said. “While there was no way sales were going to beat the March peaks that jumped to +90% two weeks in a row, it didn’t take long for 2021 to rebound to close to 2020 levels.”

Like Stein, Roerink is quick to point out the role inflation has played. Still, the “overarching story,” she said, is the continued strength in sales. Both dollars and volume are still trending ahead of the 2019 pre-pandemic normal and that confirms the high reported share of meals still being prepared at home.

At the same time, it’s clear that retail demand in general — meat in particular and groceries altogether — are still controlled by the virus in large part, Roerink said. When new cases were low, food dollars shifted back to restaurants. When cases swung back up in late summer, early fall, food dollars moved back online and to retail.

Within the overarching strong performance, there are many interesting story lines, she added. The 2020 holiday sales were extremely strong, but Halloween celebrations signaled another very strong holiday season in Q4 of 2021, when the industry will likely see a mix of traditional meat options and some items that are better suited to small gatherings, including turkey parts, ham slices and other premium meat options.

Demand outlook also remains positive for fresh turkey sales at retail, said Beth Breeding, vice president of communications and marketing for the Washington, DC-based National Turkey Federation. October whole turkey sales, for instance, were up 200% over the year before.

COVID has played a major role in that.

“The pandemic has changed the way consumers think about food,” Breeding said. “Eating habits have shifted and consumers are still spending more time cooking at home. With that change has come a greater demand for some turkey products, particularly ground turkey and deli products.”

The turkey industry has a great opportunity, she added, to reinforce that demand for turkey products and the value of turkey compared to other proteins. 

The turkey industry is also having an easier time convincing consumers that their product is not for holidays only.

Turkey’s versatility, Breeding said, makes it a great protein option 365 days a year, with multiple applications for lunchtime and quick weeknight meals.

With consumers more consistently and measurably returning to instore food shopping, they’re rediscovering their enjoyment of making a hands-on decision of which package of fresh poultry to purchase, said Tom Super, spokesperson for the Washington, DC-based National Chicken Council.

“Surveys point to findings that food shopper traffic in brick-and-mortar stores is back to prepandemic levels and is likely to continue at a good trend based on consumers attitudes,” he said. “This shift ‘back to normal’ is positive news for chicken. As chicken producers continue to overcome the supply challenges arising from the pandemic, there will be a more plentiful quantity of fresh chicken parts and products at food shoppers’ favorite supermarket and club store.”