Changes are coming, thanks to the sudden lock-down America and much of the rest of the world are experiencing due to COVID-19.
That’s not a bold statement, given every other major event creates a “new normal.” The terrorist attacks of 9/11, for instance, brought many changes to America, most notably to security surrounding airline travel.
Closer to our own industry, the discovery of one BSE-infected U.S. cow in December 2003 brought our beef export trade to a screeching halt. It was a decade before our export volumes were regained, and only recently has China reopened its market to U.S. beef.
It’s too early to know how dramatically life will change once the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us, but we can realistically expect the prolonged isolation imposed on most Americans to stem the spread of COVID-19 will influence behavior going forward.
The easy observation is more people will work remotely. Telecommuting will increase dramatically as measures of productivity show remote workers can be just as, or more productive, than in-office workers. Fewer commuters mean fewer cars on the roads, less expense and reduced strain on infrastructure.
More long-distance learning is also a likely result of COVID-19 isolation. Universities have already incorporated more distance courses, but the trend will now spread to elementary and secondary schools. Huge cost saving could result in more widespread use of telelearning.
If such changes are to be widely successful, rural Americans will need better access to broadband internet. Most importantly for beef and the food system, consumer behavior might be permanently influenced by COVID-19. Restaurants became empty almost immediately, and people were suddenly eating the bulk of their meals at home as millions of restaurant jobs were lost.
The logical conclusion is with fewer workers commuting, fewer people will eat lunch at restaurants and fewer will meet at a restaurant after work. How the trend will eventually influence beef demand is still unknown.
What we know from trends and research is beef quality will matter, maybe even more in the future as more meals are cooked at home. Additionally, quality will include more than just marbling. The COVID-19 event has already shown the value of traceability for many health systems and products and will only become more valuable to America’s food system. Conspicuous for its absence in our world of data and technology is a traceability system for beef. We should recognize the new normal that is sweeping our country and implement an industrywide traceability system.