Despite supply chain hiccups during the pandemic, meat sales remained strong in the last year. And while meat sales have slowed recently, the overall picture for meat is bright, says Pete Swanson, senior consultant with the IRI Fresh Center for Excellence.

“From a macro standpoint with meat sales, we’re still higher than we’ve ever been,” says Swanson. While dollar and volume declines have been seen year to date and during the summer specifically, he says, “Keep in mind that our base grew significantly last year out of proportion with normal trends, so these negative results are a little misleading.”

Total fresh meat sales are up 3.7% compared with a year ago and 18.4% versus three years ago. Within the category, beef—which still commands more than a 50% share of sales in the fresh meat department—lamb and exotic meats all are up year over year and up substantially compared with three years ago. But across the category in the 13 weeks ending July 11, 2021, sales of beef (-8.9%), chicken (-6.3%), pork (-10.6%), lamb (-1.9%) and exotic (-10.7%) all were down.

“Some of it is inflation, and there are definitely some price increases occurring across the board, but a lot of that is still offset by promotion,” Swanson notes. “A heavy dose of product is being promoted. We may not see some of those front-page prices of 2019, but there’s still enough promotion taking place to help offset inflation in the base price.”

In addition to stocking up on ground beef and branching out with luxury items, such as lamb and exotic meats, consumers also turned to plant-based meat alternatives in the pandemic. Plant-based alternatives continue to perform well, though these products represent a much smaller share of the overall category. Sales of meat alternatives are up 24.8% compared with a year ago and 236.1% versus three years ago, finds IRI.

“Plant-based is not going away anytime soon,” says Swanson, who notes that the industry acquired new buyers during the pandemic and is now wisely reaching out to a sustainability-minded younger demographic with the hope that they will cultivate customers for life. “I don’t think it’s a fad. There’s definitely still growth there,” he adds. “At some point we’ll plateau, but I don’t know that it’s happened yet. Making it better-tasting, more accessible and easier to prepare will keep the category in an upward cycle.”