Will African Swine Fever Push Consumers to Alternative Proteins?

( Lori Hays, Farm Journal )

Consumers want more protein, but research shows they don’t understand it. With so much noise coming at people these days, it’s no wonder that consumers get numb to the science and confused on the facts. One day it’s good for you, the next day it’s not.

Last fall, Nielsen released the results of two surveys looking at consumers’ protein knowledge. The results revealed some interesting knowledge gaps. For example, 78% of respondents said they believed peanut butter is higher in protein than it actually is, while many didn’t recognize cottage cheese as a high-protein food.

What’s most interesting is that the powerhouse protein sources – pork, beef and chicken – didn’t score well in the minds of consumers, even though they are all high-protein products. Few consumers identified pork as being a high source of protein.

Undoubtedly, U.S. consumers have a growing appetite for all things protein. In fact, Nielsen reports that 55% of U.S. households say high protein is now an important attribute to consider when buying food for their households. Across the U.S., 6% of households include someone who lives on a high-protein diet. That’s more than 5.4 million people.

Now consider how this intersects with the current global protein supply. With the devastating impact of African swine fever (ASF) on the world’s pork supply, there’s no denying this is an issue that pork producers need to monitor closely. 

Mounting losses in the Chinese pig herd due to ASF are expected to drive a deficit in pork supplies of up to 16 million metric tons by the end of 2019, RaboResearch animal protein analyst Christine McCracken says. Until China can get this disease under control and rebuild, it will need to find other protein sources to meet consumer needs. 

Pork accounts for more than 60% of meat consumption in China. But American Farm Bureau Federation economist Michael Nepveux says the love of pork might not be enough.

As the largest producer and consumer of pork, China claims almost half of the world’s consumption of this protein source. To put it into perspective, Nepveux says the global annual pork trade is only equivalent to about two months of Chinese consumption.

There is no way the world can replenish China’s pork supply loss with pork, but other proteins, including alternative proteins, are hopeful that they can supply part of that need.

At the recent Animal Agriculture Alliance Stakeholders Summit, McCracken posed two difficult questions. 

“If China is looking for a way to feed its population, why wouldn’t they look to alternative protein and specifically, lab-based protein? Will it be easier for China to grow lab-based meat than to recover from African swine fever?” she asked.

There’s no question that lab-based meat has some high hurdles to cross before it enters the marketplace, but her point is on target. As domestic meat prices climb and we export more pork to protein-hungry countries like China, the alternative protein industry is being handed an opportunity for their industry to develop on a silver platter. 

So what can we do? 

“Stay competitive in the meat case,” McCracken urged attendees at the summit. “Tell your story. Plant-based alternative proteins are often highly processed products with a label over 20 ingredients long. You don’t find most plant-based ingredients in nature. They don’t have a clean label and they aren’t healthier. You have a good natural product people want. Don’t give up the lead on health.”

Alternative proteins offer options to countries looking to fill a protein need. Although you and your family may not choose to consume these products, there will be many consumers that will. McCracken says it’s important to understand what role they could play.

“You’ve got to understand your vulnerabilities,” she says. “Know what your customer is looking for and how you will compete. Remember, traditional animal-based proteins still have the advantage.”

Related Articles:

China’s Love of Pork May Not Be Enough

Large Swine Herd Losses in China Pressure Protein Industry

African Swine Fever Losses Cause Export Challenges, Opportunities

It’s Time to Prioritize Protein

Older Americans Miss the Mark on Protein; Pork Provides Solutions