Concern about poor working conditions in the meat industry after repeated coronavirus outbreaks at slaughterhouses may speed up a trend among Germans to buy higher-priced, better quality meat and vegetarian and vegan substitutes.
Germany, Europe’s biggest pork producer, has seen meat consumption decline for years as people buy less of it driven by health reasons and concerns for animal welfare. The coronavirus pandemic may have added a further reason to the list.
The recent outbreaks at slaughterhouses and meat processing factories drew the public’s attention to the industry’s use of subcontracted workers from eastern Europe who work and live in horrible conditions.
“The price for meat in Germany are very low compared to other countries. It is just too cheap, you could almost say. We see a trend away from very cheap meat and towards higher quality and substitute products,” said Robert Kecskes, an analyst from the market research company Growth from Knowledge (GfK). “It is not only about animal welfare, but it is also about human welfare.”
Some 600,000 people around Gütersloh, in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, were forced back into lockdown on June 23 after more than 1,500 workers at the Tönnies slaughterhouse and meatpacking plant tested positive for COVID-19.
Meat substitutes sales are rising
Sales of processed meat have steadily fallen in Germany in the last five years, according to market data firm Euromonitor, while sales of meat substitutes have risen 12% over the same period to $234 million in 2019.
Rügenwalder Mühle, a company that previously specialized in cold cuts but has transformed itself into Germany’s biggest producer of meat substitutes, said sales of its vegetarian and vegan products had jumped 50% so far this year, after a rise of 44% in 2019.
The number of vegetarians in Germany has doubled in the last five years to about 7% of the population, with vegans making up 2%. Almost a third of households are trying to reduce their meat consumption, according to GfK.
Joerg Erchinger, a butcher in the Prenzlauer Berg area of Berlin, said most of his customers buy his products because he offers meat from humanely farmed animals.
“The constant availability has caused customers to stop thinking about where their meat, their cucumbers, their fruit and their vegetables come from, and that has made it an everyday product like a box of screw or nails,” Erchinger said.
“We very rarely have impulse (buyers) here, 90 percent of the customers come to us because they consciously choose fresh meat and consciously go to the butcher seeking meat without preservatives and without a variety of allergies. People really want an honest sausage.”
One of his customers Katharina Monti said: “Yes, it is deliberate because the quality of the meat is important to me and I don’t want to just buy a piece of mass-produced meat for myself and the family. It is for the benefit of the children and the family, but also for the benefit of the animal.”