UK meat consumption drops due to cost-of-living crisis

13 Apr 2023

Squeezed incomes and record inflation means UK consumers are eating less meat, creating potential for affordable meat-free and vegetable-forward launches.

The cost-of-living crisis is impacting consumers’ meat consumption habits. Veganism, vegetarianism, and flexitarianism have grown in recent years, with manufacturers launching technology, products and marketing to capture consumer hunger for meat-free proteins.

UK meat consumption drops due to cost-of-living crisis
© AdobeStock/Denys Kurbatov

Yet with increasing cost pressures, consumers are reducing their meat intake. The response to the cost-of-living crisis, which first emerged in 2022, has continued into 2023. Research by market intelligence company Mintel indicates that cost surpasses sustainability in shoppers’ decision-making process to purchase meat.

“People have become more price sensitive seeking out bargains due to having less money to spend on food,” says Nick Allen, CEO of the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA).

Less meat, save money

In February 2023, the annual inflation rate grew to 18.2% for food and non-alcoholic beverages from 16.8% in the year to January 2023. The rise represents the fastest price rate increase in over 45 years.

In 2022, the percentage of consumers who believed eating less meat was a “good way to save money” hit 43%, up from 27% in 2021. However, while consumers perceive there is an association between avoiding meat and saving money, consumers are seemingly less attached to the environmental benefits of going meat-free. The view that lowering meat consumption is “better for the environment” dropped from 47% in 2021 to 41% in 2022, Mintel found.

However, overall, meat consumption remains a strong sector within food. “On the whole, meat consumption is holding up, with a small decrease depending on the sector,” says Allen. “The biggest impact is that people are trading down and buying cheaper cuts of meat, i.e., beef mince rather than steaks, undermining the margins in the sector.”

© AdobeStock/JENOCHE© AdobeStock/JENOCHE

In the UK, 10% of consumers do not eat meat, Mintel research shows. Almost half (47%) of adults are either not eating meat or poultry or are reducing their consumption. As a further 14% of consumers are interested in lowering their meat intake, there is potential for meat consumption to continue to fall.

Questions and strategies may now focus on whether people will return to eating more meat when current financial pressures ease. “The drops are not that dramatic, more about trading down, the consumption of meat is, on the whole, pretty robust, and people recognise it as part of a balanced diet but also enjoy the product,” says Allen.

Consumers shop more at discount supermarkets

The non-profit alliance that promotes vegetarianism in the UK, Veg Power, released a report in January 2023 following the commission of a YouGov survey involving 1,836 people. The shopping habits and behaviours of families with a household income of £30,000 or less were most impacted, the survey found. Almost a third (29%) strongly agreed they shopped more at discounter supermarkets such as Aldi and Lidl, while 28% strongly agreed that they shopped around more. Nearly three-quarters (23%) strongly agreed that offers, promotions, and discounts dictate their food choices.

“When people have a strain on their budgets, food wasted is unacceptable,” says Dan Parker, CEO of Veg Power. These families, therefore, consider risk when shopping, Parker says.

Swapping for substitutes

Meat alternative sales have slowed amid squeezed incomes, rising inflation and the subsequent cost of living crisis. High price points see consumers skip meat-mimicking products favouring vegetable and pulse-based protein. Consumers are also switching to meat-based items that match or are less pricey than meat-free goods.

The cost of meat alternatives remains a barrier. Over half (52%) of red meat and poultry eaters say they would opt for meat alternatives if they cost less than meat, according to Mintel.

Although less than 2% of UK consumers follow a vegan diet, plant-based product launches continue to attract attention among manufacturers who pursue new vegan product development, Mintel’s Global New Product Database (GNPD) suggests. In 2022, over a quarter (27%) of all UK packaged food and drink products entering the market contained a vegan or no animal ingredients claim, compared to 16% in 2018.

Pulses offer value for money

Inherently vegan options offer opportunities for new product development (NPD). Amid the cost-of-living crisis, chickpeas, and lentils, for example, can fill out meat-based meals or substitute meat to create more affordable meals.

Almost two-thirds (65%) of consumers said they would be likelier to try products that do not mimic meat, Mintel found. To date, vegetable-forward products like bean burgers, which do not focus on replicating or mimicking meat, remain underdeveloped. Manufacturers that focus on veg-based launches can tap into this opportunity and attract consumers seeking more affordable alternatives to meat.