Rethinking pork for a changing world

By Sylvain Charlebois

Editor’s note: Sylvain Charlebois is Professor & Director, Agri-Food Analytics Lab, Dalhousie University. He can be contacted at ‘’

Sylvain Charlebois is often called upon to speak on topics related to contemporary agri-food issues. He presented at Alberta Pork’s AGM in November and at the Banff Pork Seminar in January.

In a world where the culinary landscape is as diverse as its people, the enduring appeal of pork in Canadian diets speaks volumes about its cultural and nutritional significance. As the mosaic of Canadian society evolves, so does its dietary preferences, yet pork continues to hold a prime position on dinner tables across the nation. It’s not just about tradition; it’s about taste, versatility and a deep-rooted connection to our agricultural heritage. However, pork remains one of the most underappreciated sources of animal protein. It needs a renaissance.

Today, the Canadian pork industry stands at a crossroads, influenced by various global and local trends. An overwhelming 94 per cent of Canadians continue to include meat in their diets, underscoring the enduring demand for animal protein. However, this demand doesn’t exist in isolation; it’s shaped by economic, environmental and social currents that swirl around the choices consumers make every day.

The spectre of inflation looms large over every sector, and the food industry is no exception. Forecasts suggest a staggering 45 per cent increase in meat prices by 2025, compared to 2022, which understandably alters consumer behaviour. Canadians are not just passive observers in this scenario; they’re active participants, adapting their grocery shopping habits and spending less on food overall. This isn’t merely a statistic; it’s a shift that reflects the resilience and adaptability of Canadian consumers in the face of economic pressures.

With inflation comes affordability challenges. Several studies conducted in recent years suggest that plant-based proteins or vegetable proteins are generally less expensive than meat, at least over the past 12 months. The idea is to encourage consumers to opt for a more affordable protein source. However, when examining prices in Canada, the situation is not as clear-cut.

Let’s start with pork itself. Since March 2020, pork prices at retail have increased anywhere from four per cent to seven per cent, but they have experienced significant fluctuations. Even from one month to the next, variations can be quite pronounced. According to Statistics Canada, these percentages remain below the overall average for food expenditures during the same period.

While pork retail prices have been stable relative to other proteins, especially plant-based ones, fluctuations tend to be more volatile, which stands out for consumers.

Now, for vegetable proteins, let’s examine four relatively popular products: lentils, dry beans, tofu and hummus. Their prices have increased by 25 per cent, 23 per cent, 16 per cent and 10 per cent, respectively. While these increases are more substantial, they have been more gradual, without the violent fluctuations seen with meat. Since these plant-based product prices are less volatile, the hikes often go unnoticed.

Meat counter prices tend to fluctuate more due to the greater influence of variables such as energy and transportation costs. Plant-based proteins are less exposed to food safety risks, resulting in fewer losses, and their production is generally less intensive. However, once prices have risen, consumer perception is durably affected, leading them to believe the product is still too expensive. This is what’s known as ‘meat counter psychology,’ which influences our perceptions.

People feel like meat counter prices have increased more in recent years, but that’s not entirely the case, at least according to Statistics Canada data. And that is not helping pork sales. Pork needs to find its TikTok moment, allowing consumers to understand that pork is unique, healthy, versatile and affordable. The industry should stay attuned to changing consumer preferences, including dietary trends, cultural diversity and preferences for specific cuts of pork. Flexibility and adaptability to evolving consumer demands are crucial for long-term success. Promoting the nutritional benefits of pork and developing healthier pork products can attract health-conscious consumers.

Dietary trends, cultural diversity and preference for specific cuts of pork are opportunities for the industry to market itself better.

In this dynamic landscape, the Canadian pork industry has unique opportunities and challenges. Marketing Canadian pork isn’t just about selling a product; it’s about telling a story that resonates with consumers’ evolving values and tastes. It’s about leveraging new technologies to ensure that Canadian pork isn’t just available but also sustainable and of the highest quality.

However, the story doesn’t end with domestic challenges. The global landscape is rapidly changing, and Canada isn’t isolated from these shifts. Food geopolitics are becoming increasingly relevant, with more people living inside a handful of Asian countries than outside of those countries, indicating that dense population centres are emerging as significant players in the global food market. For the pork market, it matters a great deal. In response, strategies like friend-shoring, nearshoring and onshoring – which serve to shorten yet complicate supply chains – are not just buzzwords but essential tactics for business resiliency in an interconnected world. This will impact how the pork industry is structured and how competitive it can be.

The federal carbon tax has also been an issue for the industry and its competitiveness. Carbon pricing undeniably holds significant weight in Canada. Nevertheless, it is imperative that we rigorously evaluate its effects on the affordability of food for Canadians and the long-term competitiveness of our industries. Unfortunately, comprehensive analyses in this regard have been lacking, and much of what we’ve encountered appears to be influenced by biased narratives. The efforts of our team at Dalhousie University, consisting of 10 researchers, have shed light on the scarcity of research in this area. It is challenging to quantify how carbon pricing affects food retail prices due to the multitude of factors influencing prices, starting with consumer behaviour. Our primary focus has been on industrial and wholesale prices, where we have identified noteworthy disparities between Canada and the U.S. This needs to be recognized. Our collective focus on carbon taxes should be on how the policy is impacting Canadian agriculture’s competitiveness versus the U.S., including the pork industry.

When Bill C-234, An Act to Amend the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act, was killed in the Canadian Senate, it sent a message that agri-food is becoming more and more politicized.

Moreover, for consumers, environmental stewardship is no longer a choice but a necessity. The focus is shifting from merely assessing retail impact to understanding and enhancing competitiveness while being environmentally conscious. The good news is there’s progress. From 2008 to 2023, there’s been a significant reduction in negative environmental perceptions, indicating a more sustainable path forward. Consumers care about the environment, and the pork industry is poised to do well with eco-conscious consumers.

As we delve into the future, the Canadian pork industry isn’t just facing a series of challenges; it’s embracing a spectrum of opportunities. It’s about understanding and adapting to the economic pressures, global shifts and environmental concerns that shape our world. It’s about recognizing the enduring appeal of pork in Canadian diets and ensuring that this tradition continues in a way that’s sustainable, ethical and aligned with the ever-evolving consumer preferences. The path ahead is complex, but with resilience, innovation and a deep understanding of both local and global dynamics, the Canadian pork industry can continue to thrive.