Andy Hanacek

Has your company breathed a sigh of relief that the worst of the 2008-2009 recession is behind us? If so, your company is not alone.

Yet business headlines seem to alternate between bad and good every week, as volatility takes hold of the stock markets and many national economic indicators seesaw from month to month. While the nation appears to have climbed out of the depths of the recession, only now are more economists and analysts perking up to the fact that the economy is not a rocketship heading straight to the stars.

When sifting through the noise and banter in the business world, processors need only be concerned with one group. Processors must take their cues from consumers, who appear to have gone through a very real, very measurable change in the way they purchase, prepare and consume their meals, according to a recent survey commissioned by ConAgra Foods.

According to the study, released in May, four out of five consumers do not believe the recession is over, and seven out of 10 will continue the savings habits they developed during the worst of the latest economic crisis.

For people clamoring for a return to a more family-oriented society, in-home meal preparation and consumption rose in 2009. For foodservice establishments, however, fewer people are walking through their doors. For protein processors, that’s a clear message as to what end users of their products want.

Consumers appreciate what their new “bargain hunter” strategies (using coupons, finding deals and forgoing premium items) have done for their budget and their families — thus, they’re not likely to revert back to the spend, spend, spend ways of the past. Consumers expect to continue to freeze and stretch meals, and also expect to continue to turn to prepared and frozen meals where possible.

One positive side effect: Many younger consumers have developed a new love for cooking — something our industry (and the food industry in general) had worried about to the point where value-added, non-commodity, foolproof products had become a tremendous R&D focus in many companies.

Consumers still seek convenience, but they want it at the right price. In terms of opening their wallets wider at the foodservice level, consumers need some time to heal their psyche. Meanwhile, processors should devote whatever they can to making in-home meals (and commodity products) innovative, enjoyable and high-quality for the “new” consumer — all while keeping the cost down.