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Get Ready For A Meatless Meat Explosion, As Big Food Gets On Board

Get ready for a lot more plant-protein-based burgers and chicken, as large food producers and big-box stores start to pour money and attention into the sector.

Get Ready For A Meatless Meat Explosion, As Big Food Gets On Board
[Photo: Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe/Getty Images]

When the meatpacking giant Cargill sold off its last cattle feedlots in April, it said that it wanted to free up funds to invest in alternatives like insects and plant-based protein. Four months later, along with Bill Gates and Richard Branson, the company joined a $17 million round of investment in Memphis Meats, a startup that grows beef and chicken from cells instead of on farms.

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It was one of several large deals in 2017 for meatless meats. Tyson Foods, the largest meat producer in the U.S., was part of a $55 million round of investment in Beyond Meat. Roughly a year after it started selling its meat-like burgers in mainstream grocery stores, Beyond Meat’s products are now in 19,000-plus stores. For Tyson, which also invested in Beyond Meat in 2016, it’s an example of a new direction for the company that is no longer focused solely on meat. “We’re talking about ourselves as a protein company,” says Justin Whitmore, executive vice president of corporate strategy and chief sustainability officer for Tyson.

Nestle acquired Sweet Earth Foods, which sells products like “Harmless Ham” and “Benevolent Bacon.” Maple Leaf Foods, a Canadian company known for selling Kam and Klik–the Canadian versions of Spam–along with deli meat, pork, poultry, and other meats, acquired Lightlife, a company that makes products like “Chick’n” and plant-based hot dogs, and is in the process of acquiring Field Roast, which makes both plant-based meat and dairy-free cheese. Major meat processors are reportedly in talks to license Hampton Creek’s technology for “clean” meat. (Clean meat, grown from animal cells, is also sometimes called “lab-grown” meat, though the industry says that’s inaccurate–when produced at scale, the products will be brewed like beer.) Unilever invested in university research to recreate the texture of steak. Walmart asked suppliers to provide more meat-free products.

Impossible Burger patties. [Photo: Impossible Foods]
All of this signals that the meat industry is embracing the shift in the market, says Bruce Friedrich, executive director of the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that supports the plant-based and clean meat industry and researchers. He points to a January 2016 issue of a meat industry magazine–Meating Place–in which the letter from the editor says that the industry can see meat-free meat as an opportunity or a threat. “She implored the meat industry to see it as an opportunity,” he says. “She said what we believe to be true at GFI, that the meat industry is satisfying consumer demand.” By 2020, Nestle predicts that plant-based foods will represent a $5 billion market in the U.S.

“Plant protein is among the fastest growing categories in all of retail,” says Dan Curtin, president of alternative protein at Maple Leaf Foods, which sees the category as key to the company’s own growth and a way to meet sustainability goals. “Plant protein categories are experiencing double-digit growth, and in some categories high double-digit growth. Consumers are still eating meat, but they are also looking for additional protein choices, and plant protein is the natural solution to meet that demand.”

Beyond Meat retail packaging. [Photo: Beyond Meat]
“When we think about investments like this, we’re thinking about an ‘and’ model, not an ‘or’ model,” says Tyson’s Whitmore. “So this investment does not cause us to rethink where we think the growth is in protein broadly in the other meat-based platforms. What it is, is access to new alternatives, innovation, and thinking that we think could be quite interesting and quite disruptive.”

Of course, investing in plant-based and clean meat is also a way to reduce any risk of losing market share. Tyson’s CEO predicts that in 25 years, 20% of meat will consist of these non-meat products. Rabobank, a major international agricultural financier, said that the growth of these foods should be a “wakeup call to the animal protein sector.” The president of the Meat Industry Hall of Fame called the new meat substitutes one of the “greatest ag challenges” for 2018 in a recent post, writing that the influx of new cash means that “several companies now have the money to do the serious research to make fake meat taste more like the real thing rather than what you put in a horse’s feed bag. All that new money buys lots of shelf space at the local HyVee or Piggly Wiggly, too. If you’re raising the grains that are often the raw materials for this stuff, good for you. If you’re raising cattle, you’re battling still another unwanted competitor for the center of the consumer’s plate.”

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Richard Branson predicts that the new meat will go even further, fully replacing traditional meat in roughly three decades. Friedrich thinks that won’t quite be true–subsistence farmers will likely still raise livestock, he says, and some people will want to pay a premium for humanely, sustainably raised meat from farms that use practices like regenerative agriculture. But the majority of the market could make the shift. “I think that all industrial meat will be plant-based meat or clean meat because plant-based meat and clean meat are so efficient–they will taste the same or better, and be cheaper,” he says.

Newer companies in the industry, such as Impossible Foods and Memphis Meats, aren’t targeting vegetarians with their products; instead, their burgers are designed to appeal to meat eaters who are concerned about issues like the carbon footprint of beef, or the overuse of antibiotics on farms. Companies that have been around longer, making veggie burgers for a niche market, are also realizing that their products can evolve. Technology is making meatless meat truly realistic and will continue to improve. In some cases, as Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown argues, the new products could be tweaked to taste better than meat, because they’re not constrained by the limitations of raising livestock. “I think we’re going to see huge research and development based improvements in plant-based meat in the very near future,” says Friedrich.

Plant-based dairy products, like soy and almond milk, have grown in recent years to make up a 9% or 10% share of the overall market, while cow-based dairy products have declined. Plant-based and clean meat products, which have only a tiny fraction of the meat market now at less than a quarter of 1%, may follow the path of dairy.

“It’s hard to turn back time and know for sure, but it sure looked to me in real time like Dean Foods buying White Wave was the precipitating factor that moved plant-based milk from the dusty nether-regions of the health food store into every Target, Walmart, Kroger, Safeway, and other grocery stores in the country,” says Friedrich. “So the fact that Cargill has purchased a stake in Memphis Meats, and Tyson has purchased a stake in Beyond Meat, and Big Food sees plant-based meat and clean meat as moving into the mainstream, will actually move plant-based meat into the mainstream.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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