Once characterized as outlandish and hipster, the alt-meat movement has its sights set on reaching McDonald’s-level mainstream. Not only has the development birthed a multi-billion dollar industry, but it has also tightened the gap between the vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian, and omnivore-curious. Though many of the same challenges of veganism still exist - obtaining supplemental nutrition, navigating social stigma, and dining out, to name a few - the recent alt-meat boom has made plant-based alternatives in high demand. As with any shift in consumer appetite, big-name companies are forced to adapt.
The alt-meat industry seems to have solidified its stance in the corporate world with Beyond Meat’s decision to go public in May 2019. Among U.S. companies raising over $200 million in public offerings, Beyond Meat had the best-performing IPO since 2000. The company’s share price jumped 163% over IPO price on its first day of trading, and its market capitalization more than doubled to reach $3.8 billion. Beyond Meat’s CEO Ethan Brown claims that he has seen "a brand morph into a movement,” with numerous other companies hopping on the meatless bandwagon. Positing that the emergence of companies like Beyond Meat are simply a reaction to the changing landscape of food production, Brown points to Gen-Z as the driving force behind the meatless revolution. According to Barclays, the market for plant-based meat has the potential to reach $14 billion, with the market for alternative meat - such as cultured meat - to possibly hit $140 billion. Other key players in the industry include Impossible Foods, Lightlife, Gardein, and Tofurky, among others.
Barclays proposes that three agents drive demand for meat alternatives: environmental consciousness, animal welfare concerns, and personal health. Although it’s well-known that the meat industry has an enormous environmental impact due to land and water requirements and greenhouse gas emissions, experts warn against expecting meat substitutes to form a perfect solution. Because these alternatives are usually highly processed, the carbon impact still exists. “While [Beyond Meat and Impossible Food’s] processed products have about half the carbon footprint that chicken does, they also have five times more of a footprint than a bean patty,” said Marco Springmann, a senior environmental researcher at the University of Oxford.*
Plant-based meat alternatives do seem to be taking a step in the right direction, though, and have certainly found success in marketing toward the environmentally-conscious. Taken from Beyond’s website, a peer-reviewed Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) conducted by the University of Michigan compared the environmental impact of the Beyond Burger to a ¼ lb. U.S. beef burger. The study demonstrates that the product uses significantly less water, land, and energy, and it produces significantly fewer greenhouse gas emissions. It will be imperative, however, to continue assessing these companies’ carbon footprints as their businesses scale.
With the $4 trillion health and wellness industry becoming an exponentially growing part of consumer consciousness, it’s no surprise that health is listed first on Beyond’s mission statement. Consumers have become aware of the increased cardiovascular risks of eating red meat, and the demand for heart-healthier alternatives is higher than ever. However, due to the fact that alternative meat companies are marketing toward plant-eaters and omnivores alike, the pressure to make a true meat substitute - alike in flavor, texture, caloric density and nutritional profile - does come at a health cost, and the result is a highly-processed product. Ricardo San Martin, a researcher at UC Berkeley, stated in an interview with Vox, “Plant-based means it’s of ingredients that come from plants, but that doesn’t mean you’re eating a salad — “they are processed foods.” Patrick Brown, CEO of Impossible Foods, states that he isn’t trying to convince people otherwise. According to the New York Times, Mr. Brown stated that the company’s goal is not to convince consumers that the Impossible Burger is the healthiest option. Rather, it is to persuade people who are craving a “cow burger” to opt for an Impossible burger instead.
Another obvious factor driving the popularity of alternative meats is the growing concern for animal welfare, with plant-based foods reporting to save 250,000 animals a year. Though it’s almost negligible compared to the 120 million pigs and 30 million cows killed yearly for food in the U.S., consumers are growing increasingly aware of farming industry practices. While at the same time pressing industry leaders for change, buyers are also exploring other options.
As the demand for meat alternatives continues to rise, large companies are forced to offer alternative products at the risk of losing vegan and meat-eating customers alike. Trialing at their St. Louis locations in April 2019, Burger King partnered with Impossible Foods to create the Impossible Whopper. According to Barclays, traffic increased a whopping 18% at the location, with no similar growth for comparable companies like McDonald’s. Once the rollout was complete, stores that had been open for at least a year experienced a 5% increase in sales for the quarter, marking its strongest growth since 2015. Although fourth quarter sales flattened with just 0.6% growth, the company is optimistic that plant-based foods will continue to provide new opportunities for revenue. With data to suggest that the high price point was often a deterrent for many customers, Burger King added the Impossible Whopper to its 2-for-$6 menu.
Impossible Foods has also teamed up with White Castle, Qdoba, Disney, and Red Robin, among others. At one point worried that they wouldn’t be able to meet the exponentially-growing demand, the company now claims that the shortage is over. The solution? They partnered with a meat-producing company. Rest assured, Impossible Foods has its own, separate production space that protects it from cross-contamination. Interestingly, however, the processes and equipment used in real- and fake-meat production are almost identical, according to Sheetal Shah, a Senior Vice President at Impossible Foods.
Impossible Foods isn’t the only company scoring a plant-partnership with chain restaurants. Beyond Meat has partnered with Subway, TGI Friday’s, Dunkin’, McDonald’s, and more. Such success can be attributed to these companies’ commitment to appealing not only to vegans but meat-eaters as well. Although concern for the environment, animal welfare, and human health have been at the forefront of Beyond’s campaigns, taste has always been Brown’s top priority. “I have a strong commitment to meeting people where they are,” he told Vox Media. According to a survey conducted by Bank of America Merrill Lynch, the flexitarian diet, which encompasses a mix of both plant-based and meat products, seems to be the biggest target for the alternative meat industry. According to Nielsen, 98% of meat alternative buyers also purchase meat, a statistic that helps explain why substitute meat products are often found in the meat sections of grocery stores as opposed to being shelved with other plant-based products. “We’re all about mainstream,” Brown told Vox. Although the demand for alternative meat products may not signal the eradication of the meat industry altogether, it certainly points to a likely decline.
Now it’s time for Chick-Fil-A to catch up.