As we linger in the third month of this global public health crisis, many of us still find gaps in our local supermarkets’ shelves – the usual suspects naturally being paper products, frozen vegetables and within the meat section. As the U.S. meat sector in particular confronts one fiasco after another, one nascent industry is having a field day: Plant-based protein companies are raking it in.
According to Nielsen data that the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month, plant-based protein companies are seeing a huge surge in sales — 264 percent to be exact as of May 2. Some of this increase has its origin in the errors the meatpacking industry has made, including the failure to enforce social distancing guidelines, which caused COVID-19 outbreaks to unfold at some of the largest meat processing companies in the U.S. Accusations over the poor treatment of employees also hasn’t helped boost the sector’s reputation. The industry’s own admission that its supply chain is struggling has also led to fears that millions of animals could be needlessly slaughtered while food insecurity is on the rise.
“I’d always been trying to block out a lot of what was going on behind the scenes of the meat industry, but I can’t ignore it forever,” one consumer said to the New York Times in a recent interview. Nowadays, however, consumers who feel repulsed by what they perceive to be the meat industry’s cruelty to animals and workers alike have more options — and when it comes to taste, these fake meats can hold their own.
But plant-based protein companies can point to other factors accounting for their rise. While meat companies are susceptible to such risks as disease outbreaks, drought and the lifecycle of farm animals, the makers of plant-based alternatives can by and large dodge those bullets. Sure, bad weather can lead to price increases, but a company like Turtle Island Foods (the maker of Tofurkey) or Beyond Meat can pivot quickly and buy ingredients elsewhere. For a surge in demand, there’s no need to build another new expensive processing plant – these companies can add more shifts. As Matt Simon of Wired recently pointed out, for better or worse, the manufacturing of plant-based protein products is far less labor-intensive than the butchering of animals. “Facilities that produce plant-based meat rely heavily on machinery to mix and extrude ingredients, so employees aren’t standing as closely together as they would be in a meatpacking plant,” Simon wrote last week.
This trend is hardly unique here in the U.S. In fact, the evidence suggests plant-based protein companies are having a moment in Asia as well. Concerns about meat safety are on the rise, nudging more consumers to have a more open mind about alternatives made from soy or pea protein. With Starbucks reportedly working on an agreement with Beyond Meat to have its products appear on its menus in China, the plant-based protein revolution is moving beyond what just a year ago we could have dismissed as edgy public relations moves.
The path forward for plant-based protein products is still not entirely without roadblocks. Millions of unemployed consumers could balk at what for many of them is a premium to pay for faux meat. An unforeseen shock such as a sudden food safety problem could also turn consumers off. And even though the White House has floated the idea of slashing cattle imports, U.S. policies often shift at the whims of its current occupant – and in any event, many consumers are open to purchasing meat sourced from Mexico and other countries. At the same time, as more consumers stash plant-based alternatives in their refrigerators and freezers, the changes are high that come mealtime, they’ll find that moment of desperation ended up tasting better later on than they had first assumed.
Image credit: Beyond Meat/Facebook
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's worked an lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.