Maybe we’ll “meat” again unless plants take over

It has yet to fully impact Australian markets, but plant-based substitutes to meat continue to make inroads into the hearts, minds and stomachs of millions of Americans.

Non-meat sausages, hamburgers and beef have attracted a growing army of devotees across the U.S. and food innovator Beyond Meat is now targeting the breakfast staple in most parts of the world – bacon.

The continuing growth of the fake meat industry around the world is a potential threat to Australian farmers, already caught in the worst drought conditions in more than 100 years.

Any shrinkage in the international meat market will increase the pressure to maintain their already reduced livelihoods, stock and crops.

American food manufacturing companies are rushing to be involved with the booming vegan market, including Burger King developing a vegan Whopper, and if past trends are an indication, the same thing will happen in Australia.

Plant-based bacon is already under development by Beyond Meat. There is no launch date, however CEO Ethan Brown told Bloomberg that the product is getting better as testing continues.

The likelihood of a plant-based bacon being available will be another boost to Beyond Meat’s success story

The company’s share price has soared almost 700 per cent since it was floated in May – the launch made history when the company’s shares tripled on their first day of trading.

And the growing list of distributors points to its growing popularity with consumers.

The plant-based burgers, ground beef and sausages are sold in more than 30,000 supermarkets, restaurants and other venues around the world.

Developing a non-meat bacon continues the company’s focus on providing breakfast foodstuffs but it seems very likely that attention in time, will switch to other meals, including dinner which offers a massive market.

Breakfast chains that have embraced plant-based products include Tim Hortons which serves Beyond Meat’s sausages on breakfast sandwiches in almost 4000 locations. Beyond Meat has also announced a breakfast sandwich partnership with Dunkin’ Brands Group Inc.

Conversations with potential customers for the bacon are already underway.

“We’re looking forward to trying their bacon whenever we can,” said Emily Murphy, director of specialty procurement at Baldor Foods, a produce-focused distributor with centres in New York, Boston and Washington.

“We understand from Beyond that it’s in the works.”

One solace for Australian farmers is that the food industry’s new favourite protein source is peas.

If demand for meat does dry up, some farms could be converted to legumes to meet an anticipated world shortage if the trend for meat substitutes keeps growing.

Beyond Meat’s vegan burgers and sausages lead the fake meat revolution, with the pea as their star ingredient. The protein from the legume has surged in popularity, especially among manufacturers of meat, dairy and seafood substitutes.

Industry observers say vegan food manufacturers are reaping the rewards of their marketing campaign to attract school and university students.

Once converted to non-meat products they remain customers for life.

Beyond Meat’s marketing success have led to the market being expanded by the arrival of new Lightlife burger and Ripple Foods, with its line of pea-based dairy substitutes.

These foods also use peas: JUST’s eggless egg products, Good Catch Foods’ fish-free tuna and UK-based Nomad Foods’ Green Cuisine line that includes meatless burgers, sausages and Swedish meatballs. 

Beyond Meat burger patties. Source: Beyond Meat

With peas becoming such a hot commodity, big players are preparing to ramp up supply, says Bloomberg.

Global pea protein sales will quadruple by 2025, says Henk Hoogenkamp, an adviser and board member for several food companies, with most of the increase stemming from more consumption of plant-based meat products.

Peas thrive in northern climates, and Canada is expected to become the global production leader and account for 30 percent of output in 2020, Hoogenkamp says.

New processing facilities are being built there, as well as in France, Belgium and Germany. Agriculture giant Cargill has an agreement with Puris, a producer of plant-based food ingredients, to significantly expand its pea protein operations. Some mothballed soy protein factories in China will probably be converted to pea protein facilities, Hoogenkamp says. Nonetheless, Beyond Meat is already looking to mix up its ingredients list. 

“Pea protein is an amazing resource for us, it works well, but there’s nothing particularly special about it,” Chief Executive Officer Ethan Brown says. “If you think about the plant kingdom, there are so many other stocks we can use—mung bean, brown rice, mustard seed, lentils. We will have a much more diverse bench of proteins.”

Using a variety of ingredients, he says, will give the company’s products “more varied bite” and a texture that’s closer to animal meat.

Not too long ago, soy ruled the plant-based kingdom, becoming the go-to base of many well-known meatless products, like Morningstar Farms Grillers veggie burgers, Lightlife’s Gimme Lean sausage and Gardein Chick’n Strips. But over the past several years, food trends have turned against it. While soy is easier to buy than pea protein, it’s also an allergen, is often genetically modified and has been the victim of conflicting headlines about health risks.

In the U.S., 30 percent of consumers aged 18 to 34 say they, or someone in their household, is avoiding soy, according to data compiled by Mintel for the American Pulse Association.

Ripple uses peas, its founders says, because they’re the most available plant protein that isn’t soy.

Beyond Meat plant-based sausage. Credit: Bloomberg