Will meat alternatives become “the new normal”?

Publish Date

12 OCT 2020

Overview

COVID-19 changed how we approach education, travel, leisure activities and just about every other aspect of our lives. What about the food we eat? Is the pandemic influencing consumer desire for plant-based or cultured meat?

Shortly after pandemic lockdowns were put in place, interest in meat alternatives was soaring among consumers. On May 15th, Bloomberg News reported that sales of plant-based meat in grocery stores jumped a remarkable 264% in the nine weeks ending May 2nd – while at the same time overall consumer spending plummeted. Curious about the biggest losers during that same time period? Donuts, cupcakes and sushi.

What contributed to this sudden spike in sales of meat alternatives? And will it be sustained when we start to ease back into our “new normal”? Here are some insights from experts in the field as reported in recent industry publications.  

Growing Interest in Sustainability and Safety
In an interview with Food Navigator, David Brandes, co-founder of cultured meat supplier Peace of Meat, shared his view that the coronavirus pandemic would drive interest in food solutions that are perceived to be more sustainable, environmentally-friendly and safe.  

In addition to the desire for more sustainable sources of meat, heightened awareness of diseases of zoonotic origin fuels interest in safer sources. In the same interview, Brandes noted an alphabet soup of diseases including COVID, MERS (middle eastern respiratory syndrome) and BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) that “spilled over from animals to humans”.

How big is this problem? The United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC) states that six out of every ten infectious diseases in people are zoonotic, adding that strengthening of capabilities to not only respond to these diseases is needed, but to prevent them.

Alternative sources of meat offer a solution. They are grown in a sterile environment with minimal risk of viral contamination, resulting in a much safer and “clean” product. Another, quite intriguing benefit of meat alternatives lies in the fact that the production process enables addition of supplemental ingredients. Brandes notes that addition of vitamins, amino acids and saturated and unsaturated fats to the lab-produced meat could potentially address nutritional deficiencies and boost immune systems.

Mapping a New Route for Supply Chains
Toilet paper and hand sanitizer weren’t the only products in short supply in grocery stores as the pandemic spread. High prices and limits on quantities became the norm as one of the United States’ biggest meat processors offered a dire warning that “the food supply chain is breaking”.

Unprecedented stress on the global meat supply chain likely encouraged many consumers to try or increase purchase of alternatives. And because plant-based meat had already been gaining mindshare with consumers through its presence on fast food restaurant menus, it perhaps didn’t feel like such a radical shift in buying behavior.   

Here again, plant-based and cultured meat can address the problem at its core. Locally produced, decentralized production of alternative meat will be far less constrained by geographic and climatic conditions than traditional livestock and agriculture. As such, it represents an important solution to the supply chain challenge and empty grocery shelves.

Creating a Safer Approach to Production
A recent story in Wired explored the growing demand for meat alternatives and highlighted how production facilities can offer a safer approach compared to conventional meat packing. Unfortunately, the meatpacking industry faced significant challenges during the pandemic with outbreaks resulting, in part, from close working conditions. In the article, Caroline Bushnell, associate director of corporate engagement at the Good Food Institute, described facilities producing plant-based meat as relying heavily on machinery to mix and extrude ingredients which allows employees to remain further apart. She noted that these facilities are “cleaner, they’re safer, they’re more highly automated.” Similarly, facilities producing cultured meat could offer safer working environments.

Will the Interest Last?
It’s clear that the pandemic has driven significant interest in meat alternatives. Combine the desire for sustainability and safer foods with concerns over supply chains and working conditions that may contribute to outbreaks, and you have a recipe for change.

But this interest didn’t just start with the pandemic. Sales of legume-based meat substitutes grew by 451% in Europe between 2013 and 2017. And a poll released in January 2020, a few short weeks before COVID became a fixture in our lives, reported that more than 40% of Americans reported having personally tried plant-based meat. And 60% of the people who had tried it said they were either “very” or “somewhat likely” to continue eating meat alternatives.

The COVID 19 pandemic changed our lives in innumerable ways and highlighted new ideas and opportunities for a safer and more sustainable future. Undoubtedly, this global crisis further brightened the spotlight on alternatives to the meat we eat and how it is produced, ensuring that consumers will experience the benefits for years to come.  

What about you?

Has the pandemic increased your preference for meat alternatives?