The Meat Industry’s Fight Against Plant Based: A Classic Disruption Story?
Despite its economic and political muscle, the meat industry has not been able to fully control the narrative or public policy around plant-based meat alternatives. Unlike its UK dairy counterpart, which successfully lobbied to prevent the use of “milk” to describe non-dairy milk alternatives, the UK meat industry tried and failed to pass legislation that would have prevented alternative meats from being called “burgers” or “sausages.” In the U.S. neither Big Dairy nor Big Meat have been able to prohibit the use of “milk” or “meat” for their plant-based alternatives.
Managing Director of the Federation of Belgian Meat (FEBEV) Michael Gore explains, “We are the only sector in the food industry that has so many controls,” lamenting the fact that meat in the EU must fulfill a specific set of rules regarding rearing and feeding conditions, processing, and even final product composition. Plant-based meats do not have such strict guidelines, yet still use words such as ‘sausage’ or ‘burger’ to promote their products. Many meat industry leaders share Gore’s sentiment and want industry verbiage to be codified and prevented from being used to market plant-based meats. On the other hand, Camille Perrin, Senior Food Policy Officer at the European Consumer Organization (BEUC), contends that “Terms such as ‘burger’ or ‘steak’ on plant-based items simply makes it much easier to know how to integrate these products within a meal.”
Big Meat has gained ground elsewhere, however, including in France, where the farming lobby succeeded in banning “meat” from describing plant-based meat products as of October 2022. Similarly, the Johannesburg high Court in South Africa granted a ban on terminology such as ‘meatball’, ‘sausage’, or ‘biltong’ to market plant-based foods.
The Meat Lobby
Notorious for cozying up to governments and political campaigns, the meat industry has big steaks–and even bigger stakes–in the plant-based meat game. Lobbyists spend considerable amounts to bankroll candidates and back pro-agriculture, anti-climate change policies around the world.
The much-debated United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutritional guidelines reflect less what one’s doctor might recommend, and more what drives revenue for animal agriculture corporations. Informed by USDA research, a 1977 US Senate Committee Report concluded that “benefits would be shared by all” if the population decreased consumption of meat, sugar, salt, and other animal products (eggs, butter, milk, etc.). The meat industry objected, however, and successfully pressured the report’s second edition to change its recommendation to suggest that consumers merely “decrease consumption of animal fat, and choose meats, poultry, and fish which will reduce saturated fat intake”. Public debate on which foods are most healthful, ethical, and sustainable has increased tenfold since this. Regardless, Big Meat’s financial power and political strength continue to influence that public debate as well as public policy and USDA guidelines.
Consumer Confusions and Perceptions
In the US, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) conducted a 2019 survey that revealed shocking consumer confusion about ingredients in plant-based meat products. Out of over 1,800 people surveyed, fewer than 50% of respondents understood that ‘plant-based beef’ indicated a completely vegetarian or vegan product. In fact, out of those surveyed 31% thought that ‘plant-based beef’ contained at least some animal product. Unsurprisingly, as plant-based meats become increasingly mainstream, the global meat industry are taking even greater issue with the terminology confusion.
Further confusion arises in the fact that plant-based eaters and meat eaters alike enjoy the taste of plant-based burgers, while mistakenly thinking the patties ‘better-for-you’. How people perceive the healthfulness of their food matters for product and industry revenue, as well as for individual and population-level health. Research shows that diets high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are good for the human body and the environment, so leveraging the term ‘plant-based’ on a food label may falsely insinuate the healthfulness of its product. That being said, the nutritional differences between a plant-based burger and one derived from cows–even ones composed of 85% lean ground beef–are compelling. Beyond Meat burgers have fewer overall calories and less saturated fat and Impossible Foods burgers have less overall fat compared to beef burgers.
The food industry’s marketing tactics are notorious for misleading consumers with health claims such as ‘high in calcium’ and ‘low in sugar’. This is an industry-wide issue that goes far beyond plant-based burgers. Meat industry leaders nevertheless argue that consumers are being duped on the health benefits of plant-based meat. A 2021 campaign from the US nonprofit Center for Consumer Freedom that ran online on TV, and in print media harped on the untrustworthiness of so-called ‘fake’ meats. Specifically, ingredient lists for meat-based sausage and bacon were juxtaposed with those for plant-based alternatives. The latter included many difficult-to-pronounce preservatives, whereas the meat ingredients were short, implying that real meat is superior in its simplicity and ‘cleanliness’.
A ‘Complement’ Food Product
The North American Meat Institute (NAMI) approximates that the US economy receives roughly $894 billion annually from the meat industry. Boston Consulting Group (BCG) predicts that plant-based alternatives for meat, eggs, dairy, and seafood will reach at least $290 billion globally by 2035. Given that disparity, the meat industry does not need to feel threatened, nor should those who benefit from or rely on the economies of the meat industry. The plant-based meat industry will continue to grow and refine its market, but current data shows that plant-based products are not a significant threat to meat’s market share. Rather than a competitor, or ‘alternative’, plant-based meats are actually ‘complements’ to many omnivores’ diets, a product to add to one’s grocery rotation.
Supply chain problems drove up prices for meat during the 2020 pandemic, which encouraged many consumers to opt for less expensive plant-based options. As a subsidized industry, meat prices have since stabilized and reversed this trend. Nowadays, plant-based meat sales for some brands are stagnating in the US after years of exponential growth. While global demand remains strong, US sales for Beyond Meat have been lackluster this year, though sales for McDonald Corp’s McPlant are soaring in Ireland.
If You Can’t Beat Them, Be Them?
Yes, you read that correctly. Many of the meat giants have their own subdivisions focusing on plant-based meat or are investing in other plant-based food and research companies. Tyson, Cargill, and WH Group all own plant-based meat brands including Vivera, Raised & Rooted, Plant Ever, Pure Farmland, and more. Time will tell if this becomes a classic disruption story with plant-based meats overtaking the incumbent meat industry. For now, the two industries seem poised to coexist in a competitive marketplace.