Well, we’ve got through Veganuary and, if you’re to believe all the media hype, the comfortably-off Western world is eschewing meat. January saw a torrent of plant-based meat lookalike products and vegetarian fare flood onto markets in Europe and North America and, what’s more, they were courtesy of “Big Food” not quirky millennial start-up companies, inter alia:
- McDonald’s launched its first vegetarian Happy Meal for kids;
- Pizza Hut playfully launched a cheeky, cheesy jackfruit pizza;
- Vegan Beyond Burgers arrived in Carl’s Jnr. and A&W outlets in USA and Canada and, now, the Beyond Burger is in Tesco;
- M&S introduced its Plant Kitchen range and had a special offer Vegan Valentine’s Dinner for February 14th featuring a heart-shaped beetroot burger;
- Discounter Aldi pre-empted M&S with its own tiny-priced beetroot burger, and Iceland had launched with “surprising success” its “No Bull” burger back in April, 2018 and a jalapeño variant is now available;
- Tesco doubled its vegetarian Wicked Kitchen offer;
- fmcg heavyweight Unilever popped out to buy The Vegetarian Butcher in Holland and Nestlé will launch its plant-based Incredible Burger this Spring under the Garden Gourmet brand;
- and, just to make dairy farmers nervous, Danone USA doubled its plant-based milk processing product capacity (e.g. So Delicious yogurts and cheese, Vega Clean Protein (i.e. without “naughty” No’s such as GMO, gluten and, of course, without dairy!), Silk soy, nut, grain-based milks).
What’s the story and is meat consumption plummeting? Certainly not in the USA where “Meat is Making America Great Again” and per capita meat consumption is at a record high (+100 kg. per capita). In many other Western markets, however, per capita meat consumption is flat at best and any market growth reflects an increase in overall population and, within the overall meat category, beef and lamb are struggling for momentum while chicken still has inexorable growth. In fluid milk markets there are clouds, with liquid consumption falling (“full milk” in free fall and growth in semi-skimmed failing to compensate fully), whereas plant-based milks (isn’t cows’ milk plant-based?!) are experiencing huge growth albeit from a very modest base. Butter’s doing well – God Bless The Great British Bake Off!
What’s good for foods with a bona fide protein claim is that consumers are seriously interested in upping their protein intake as part and parcel of the Health & Well-Being super-trend. But, in the consumer’s mind’s eye, the “protein canopy” (to coin a phrase) has been expanding:
- in history, red meat and particularly beef were synonymous with prime protein, then, chicken (and, to a lesser extent, turkey) muscled in!;
- eggs have always been an acknowledged protein source but lower order than “proper” meat, occasionally bedevilled with food safety scares and, still, some consumers are uncertain about the impact of eggs on cholesterol levels (although, currently, eggs are motoring well) ;
- whey protein was for body-builders and the infirm but, now, it has broad market appeal still used for sculpting the body beautiful but, also, for adding muscle to dwindling, wizened baby boomer frames;
- a decade ago, yoghurts weren’t perceived as being proteinaceous, then, Chobani launched in the USA and the “Greek-Style” yoghurt race was on with high protein claims. Arla wasn’t slow to the party and quark-based yoghurts and cottage cheese came to market as “Arla Protein” with advertisements claiming “same amount of protein as 2 egg whites”;
- soy, long a protein mainstay of vegetarians, is a principal ingredient in protein “shakes”, protein bars (e.g. Mars Protein and Snickers Protein), protein breakfast cereals (e.g. Kellogg’s Special K Protein), etc.;
- and, remember, the protein backbone for the Indian sub-continent and the Middle East for millennia has been pulses – peas, beans, lentils, etc. – which are having a surge in growth on Western menus. Then, there’s nuts, of course, which in Western markets are moving on from being Christmas items and salty pub snacks to having a moment in “high protein” snacks, salads and meat-free meals which are scooped up by omnivores not just vegetarians;
- creeping into view, pardon the pun, come insect protein products – the Insekten Burger is our favourite, but cricket flour snacks abound (e.g. Jimini’s and you can have your insect of choice – grasshopper, mealworm, and buffaloworm) and algae protein, not least with Spirulina, is becoming very fashionable;
- and, lest we forget, what about Faux meats? These are the plant-based burger lookalike products and mycoproteins (e.g. Quorn) that incense the traditional meat industry. Love them or hate them, they are under the protein canopy and will be joined in years to come by much closer representations of “the real thing”, i.e. meat grown from animal cells. Faux meats are, increasingly, in the product stables of international meat companies (e.g. Cargill, Tyson and Maple Leaf Foods)
We note the outright antagonism between meat and dairy farmers and the more extreme end of plant-based imitations (aka fake meat/milk in Trumpian parlance). Can meat only be the flesh of an animal? In history, the term meat meant food of any kind. Venerable David has long referred to coconut meat and milk and the more hide-bound in the red meat industry don’t count fish as real meat! Some of the plant guys, mind you, can be self-righteous and zealotic to the extreme excoriating omnivores for destroying the planet, ruining their health and encouraging animal welfare abuse. The use of “clean” protein/milk/meat fans the flames with the intimation that animal meat and milk is “dirty”.
On nomenclature, it’s still early days and going forward expect to see regulation and the application of common sense. The over-riding requirement is not to confuse the consumer – s/he’s confused enough as it is! If it’s a burger, then, usefully precede with an adjective such as beef/pork/vegetable. In the past, Quorn has been cheeky in its labelling – e.g. meatless & soy-free (in small type) Chik’n Tenders – clearly, beyond the pale. But, Quorn meat-free mince seems to us perfectly acceptable. Does milk only come from female mammals? We reckon that soy/almond/oat/hemp … milk labels will be permissible long-term on the basis that 99.9% of consumers won’t be confused at the supermarket shelf.
As mentioned, the market for protein foods is expanding and farmers through to retailers should be happy about this. Let’s look at meat (including faux meat!) in the marketplace. We see a continuum of products in the Meat or should it be the Protein or Centre of the Plate Department of the near future:
- at one end, “real” meat with a compelling story – festooned with adjectives identifying provenance, breed, feeding regime, etc., and retailing at a substantial premium;
- more basic meat fare, value-priced for weekday meals (more fuel than fancy!);
- flexitarian products combining meat and pulses – they’re gaining market traction right now – e.g. Lidl’s Keen & Bean chilli con carne meat balls, Greggs sausage and bean melt (so, what’s new about flexitarian products – Michelangelo invariably had chilli con carne in his lunch box as it was well-suited for those doing ceiling work), Waitrose’s Spanish pork, chickpea, red pepper & spinach sausages;
- cultured, cell-grown meat initially will be accessible only to those with high incomes and, of course, it will be grown to meet customer specifications on shape and size;
- a range of faux meat products, like the Impossible Food and Beyond Meat burgers with no animal products in their ingredient lists;
- a small and discrete entomophage section for insect food lovers.
Will each of the above categories have distinct, unique customers? Yes and No! Vegetarians and vegans will stick to their own. But, increasingly, the majority will have a meat repertoire and shop across all categories depending on the occasion – e.g. it has to be the real McCoy meat with a story for the big celebration. This is why anyone in the meat processing business should consider having representative products in all categories.
Traditional retail meat departments, as we know them, may be increasingly a feature of the past – it’s happening in front of our eyes right now. Consumers are stressed and short of time and they demand a meal or snack solution, not a problem. Clearly, the meat purchase, per se, has become less central as the importance of the meal purchase increases. The challenge for meat of any description is to ensure that it gets into the breakfast/lunch/dinner/snack sections of the supermarket or the high-flying food-to-go outlets.
“Real” meat has never been under so much pressure on three fronts: its impact on the environment, human health, and animal welfare. Within the past couple of months, 2 high profile reports (EAT-Lancet Commission and World Resources Institute [WRI] Sustainable Diet Report) concluded that meat consumption, particularly in high income countries, should be slashed. WRI gives advice to those marketing plant-based foods and recommends “appealing language to boost mainstream diners’ appetites for plant-rich foods”:
- don’t use meat-free, vegan, vegetarian, “healthy restrictive” labels;
- but do use provenance, flavour, look and feel as hooks. Sainsbury’s Cumberland-spiced veggie sausages and mash sales jumped 76% when the “meat-free” label was downplayed and the traditional recipe was highlighted.
The traditional meat industry should dwell on its unique attributes from a consumer perspective. We say, don’t get angry with the plant-based guys, get smart! They’ve joined meat under the protein canopy and they’re here to stay. Don’t fixate about “your protein” versus “their protein”, or even risk chronic constipation bickering over product nomenclature! Consumers want food that is tasty, healthy and affordable and they’re most interested in convenient meal/snack solutions NOT problems! Remember, this means convenient to buy, to prepare, to consume and to dispose of what’s left and its packaging. The threat to the meat industry of plant-based protein foods is not so much an emerging era of vegetarianism, it’s more of the arrival in the market of delicious, convenient, affordable food that happen to have fruit and vegetable ingredients!