The Meat Industry’s Stake in Plant-Based
First Name Basis
You’ve heard of Beyond Meat, the plant-based brand that produces McDonalds’ infamous McPlant patty in the UK, but have you heard of Vivera, Raised & Rooted, or Plant Ever? Plant-based meat brands other than familiar innovators Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have increasingly entered the scene, many from an unlikely origin: the meat giants themselves. While name recognition has yet to solidify, consumers are well on their way to a first-name basis with the plant-based subsidiaries of the global meat trade. It will take time, but new plant-based brands are here to stay. Whatever the reasoning–diversifying selection, simply seeing what sticks, or capitalizing on a market opportunity–meat giants understand the potential for plant-based and are actively creating new subdivisions to explore the demand.
The Meat Giants Themselves
Many consumers don’t even know who the meat giants are. While major distributors of global meat products (McDonald’s, Wal-Mart Stores, Kentucky Fried Chicken, etc.) exist proudly and in plain daylight, their suppliers (Keystone Meats, WH Group, Vion Food Group, to name a few) are behind the curtains. People don’t seek out a Lopez Foods burger (a key McDonald’s supplier). Rather, they want a McDonald’s Big Mac. On the other hand, vegan meat remains more closely tied with its branding, as seen in the example of the Impossible Whopper at Burger King.
The biggest meat companies include Keystone Meats, Tyson Foods, JBS Group, Cargill, Vion Food Group, Smithfield, Hormel, Sino Agro Food, WH Group, Danish Crown, and BRF, among others. They supply grocery stores, school cafeterias, airlines, restaurants, and more. And all of them operate a subsidiary brand or invest in research initiatives in the plant-based space.
“Happy Little Plants”
It makes sense that meat companies would want to satisfy the growing demand for plant-based meat. And with fun, lighthearted names–Happy Little Plants, Incogmeato, Raised and Rooted–they are playfulling securing their spot. Both Hormel and Tyson opted to innovate from the inside rather than acquire a preexisting plant-based meat technology, a conservative approach that has proven lucrative. Hormel Foods brought an in-house plant-based meat line called Happy Little Plants to market in 2019 to “celebrate the power of plant protein.” Tyson similarly began Raised and Rooted in 2019, throwing its hat in the ring via 10,000+ US retail locations and an expansion to the European market in 2020. David Ervin, Vice President of Alternative Protein at Tyson, describes Tyson’s global offerings as a “multi-protein portfolio that spans animal protein, alternative protein, and other exciting emerging protein formats through the ventures arm such as lab-grown.” The last comment refers to Tyson’s investment in lab-grown research companies Future Meat Technologies and Memphis Meats.
Another approach has been for meat companies to acquire smaller companies that have already done the groundwork research and creation of plant-based meat products. The largest global meat company–JBS Group–did so in its purchase of Dutch plant-based meat company Vivera in 2021. This expanded their plant-based offerings to important markets such as the Netherlands, the UK, and Germany. They already operate plant-based brand Incrível Seara in Latin America. Most recently, however, JBS pulled their US plant-based meat initiative–Planterra foods–after 2 years of operation. In a conversation with FoodNavigator, head of communications Nikki Richardson said “JBS will focus its efforts on its plant-based operations in Brazil and Europe, which continue to gain market share and expand in their respective customer bases.” In May 2022, The Guardian reported that four companies own nearly 80% of the plant-based meat market: Kellogg Company, Maple Leaf Foods, Beyond Meat, and Conagra Brands. Even though JBS controls a huge portion of the US meat market, the prowess of Kellogg, Maple Leaf, and Conagra–which own, respectively, the plant-based brands Incogmeato, Lightlife, and Gardein–maintains a hold on the plant-based meat market, pushing JBS to innovate overseas.
Going all-in on plant-based for Cargill has looked like investment in lab-grown meat with Aleph Farms and operation of plant-based chicken and beef alternative company PlantEver in China. Jackson Chan, Managing Director of Cargill Protein China, describes the intention behind this move as “taking an inclusive approach to the future of protein by investing in both animal and alternative protein.” Vion Foods went the extra mile and actually shut down one of its Netherlands slaughterhouses and meat processing plants to become a vegan meat factory. Their brand, ME-AT, sells primarily in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Austria, Hungary, Serbia, Italy, and Bulgaria. Though the strategies and fallout of these companies’ moves differ, everyone is searching for a market share in plant-based meat.
The More the Merrier?
Unlike the plant-based meat space, animal meat companies have a network of brands far too extensive to be on a first-name basis with anyone. But increasingly, plant-based meat brands are also growing branches beyond the familiar innovators. Just as we could never keep track of the hundreds of global animal meat brands, the growth of meat giants’ plant-based subsidiaries suggests a future in which plant-based brands are similarly sprawling and omnipresent. In this future, you might order a plant-based burger at Burger King, not knowing which plant-based meat brand made your patty, but only that it’s plant-based. Accordingly, retailers such as Burger King and Carl’s Junior will not need to refer to their plant-based burgers as the Impossible Whopper at Burger King or the Beyond Famous Star burger at Carl’s Junior.
For now, many major retailers have approximately 3-year respective contracts with the plant-based burger frontrunners. However, a more competitive landscape for plant-based meat options lends itself to more stable financial longevity, as these retailers won’t be wed to exclusive contracts. Of course, the current landscape enables big meat conglomerates to push out smaller plant-based meat innovators, which feeds a trend wherein a few giants control the majority of a market. Nevertheless, continued plant-based offerings from both meat giants and smaller standalone efforts might well make “plant-based meat” a concept of its own, without need of a brand name to back its public image.