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Meat alternative sales are up, but not enough to bite into meat sales

Hungry Planet
Beef Stroganoff made with Hungry Planet Beef™ Plant-Based Ground. Plant-based meat alternatives had a large increase in sales during the pandemic, but did not see a corresponding decrease in beef or pork sales.

A new report from the University of Kentucky shows meat substitutes made from plants doubled in total sales over the past two years, but it didn’t slow the growth in sales of beef and pork.

The study, published in the journal Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy, indicates shoppers were more likely to buy less chicken and fish when they bought meat alternatives than they were to cut back on beef or pork.

“We were surprised by the results,” said Shuoli Zhao, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of Kentucky and the lead author of the study. “Those products are usually marketed as a competitor of red meat.”

According to the study, most plant-based meat alternative purchases are impulse buys, rather than planned ahead of time, and that might be why they are in the same shopping carts with products they are hoping to replace.

“Consumers may go out, they are still the traditional meat lovers, but they may give plant-based meat alternatives a try. So at the end of the day, they buy both,” said Yuqing Zheng, also a professor of agricultural economics at the University of Kentucky and study co-author.

The study shows plant-based meat alternatives had $10 billion in global sales in 2018, more than $20 billion in 2020 and is expected to rise to $30 billion in the next five years.

The numbers are neither surprising nor discouraging to some in the meat alternative business.

“I believe conventional meat sales will plateau, and maybe decrease a little bit as plant-based meat continues to not only get better, but to cover more ranges of options,” said Todd Boyman, co-founder and CEO of Hungry Planet, a St. Louis based meat alternative company.

Boyman said the plant-based meat alternative industry is just getting started, and he sees the increasing sales as a sign things are going in the right direction.

“Our product has to be delicious, demonstrably healthy, better for the environment, and available in many varieties and products,” he said. “If we continue to improve upon all of those things, we will continue to increase our presence in people’s food choices.”

So far, the beef industry doesn’t see plant-based products as a threat.

“While those sales sound impressive, it’s important to keep things in context,” said Danielle Beck, senior executive director of government affairs with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

In the U.S., beef sales topped $110 billion last year, while plant based alternatives were at about $1.5 billion.

“Our producers are happy to compete for the middle of the plate, and with worldwide food demand increasing year over year, there is a need for high quality protein,” Beck said. “Plant based products may find a market, but the future for beef is very bright.”

Zhao is cautiously optimistic for the industry, based on what he is seeing both from the consumer side and the producer perspective.

“Even Tyson Food started its own plant-based food brand,” Zhao said. “They wouldn’t step on their own toes. It could be an emerging market for the long term.”

Zhao and Zheng will continue their research into plant-based meat alternatives. They received a $650,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to study other angles of the industry.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @harvestpm

Jonathan Ahl is a reporter for Harvest Public Media based at St. Louis Public Radio.
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