By Kristie Middleton
With the annual Food Day approaching, it’s hard to overlook the fact that people seem to be thinking more about where their food comes from every day. Food Day, which falls on October 24, is a nationwide celebration and movement for healthy, affordable and sustainable food, and a day of awareness about these issues couldn’t be more important.
What we eat has deep implications, and in the last several years, socially responsible businesses have started taking an active role in addressing those implications. Many are creating policies to improve the welfare of animals in their supply chains, reducing greenhouse gas emissions or purchasing only from suppliers that pay workers fair wages. And there’s one area that’s gaining traction by the day: meat reduction. Some savvy businesses have noticed a decreasing demand for meat and are creating new products to meet every meat-free need. Others are using the popular Meatless Monday program to improve employee wellness or to encourage customers to eat healthier by cutting out meat one day a week.
“Meat eating in the United States is going out of style.”
What’s the driver for this decline? USA Today says many Americans are reducing meat consumption out of concern for their health and the environment as well as rising meat prices. A Harvard study that came out this year found that replacing red meat with high-protein plant sources was associated with living a significantly longer life. And according to the United Nations, meat production is one of the top contributors to climate change, due to its high carbon dioxide and methane emissions and vast use of water, land and fossil fuels. People also want to prevent animal cruelty. Factory farms, where the vast majority of our meat, eggs and dairy come from, have a notorious reputation for inhumanely confining millions of animals in crates and cages where they can barely move.
Whatever the reason, diets are changing:
A 2011 poll from food industry research and consulting firm, Technomic, found that 21 percent of U.S. college students are limiting meat consumption.
Polling by Bon Appétit Management Company, which operates dining services at hundreds of colleges nationwide, found that the number of college vegans at its facilities had doubled between their 2005-2006 poll and their 2009-2010 poll, and the number of vegetarians rose by 50 percent.
And in an announcement that made national headlines, last year the University of North Texas in Denton opened the nation’s first all-vegan dining hall, resulting in a 30 percent rise in voluntary meal plan sales.
The program has mushroomed in recent years with support from big names like Oprah Winfrey—who implemented it at Harpo Studios—and Sodexo, a food service provider that’s participating at more than 2,000 hospitals and colleges nationwide. The Humane Society of the United States strongly supports Meatless Monday as part of its advocacy for eating with conscience, or practicing the Three Rs: reducing consumption of animals; refining dietary choices by switching to products that meet high animal welfare standards; and replacing animals in the diet with plant-based options.
Restaurants are also getting in on the game by offering new and expanded meatless options. A cover feature in Nation’s Restaurant News proclaimed “Veggie-heavy brands see growth in sales, popularity with consumers” and concluded with restaurant executive Aviv Schweitzer’s thoughts: “Is the country ready for a national vegetarian chain? I think it’s a fact; it’s not really a question anymore.”
This surge in demand has caused new meat-free products to pop up regularly. Beyond Meat, a new product financed in part by Twitter founder, Biz Stone, was so popular that a California grocery store sold out its entire week’s supply in just 48 hours. Another meat alternate that emulates the taste and texture of meat, Gardein, is now sold in the frozen section of Target stores nationwide.
Whether to reduce their carbon footprints, their waistlines, or the number of animals suffering on factory farms, one thing is clear: people are eating more meat-free meals than ever. And whether it’s corporate cafeterias participating in Meatless Monday to help keep healthcare costs down, restaurants adding new vegetarian options to menus, or manufacturers developing new meat-free products, savvy companies can bite into this market opportunity in a major way.
Kristie Middleton is Corporate Outreach Manager at The Humane Society of the United States. Follow her at twitter.com/kristimiddleton.