Consumers are turning their backs on plant-based imitation meat

The future of meat made from vegetable protein and also that created with animal cells grown in bioreactors seems uncertain.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
18 August 2023 Friday 11:11
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Consumers are turning their backs on plant-based imitation meat

The future of meat made from vegetable protein and also that created with animal cells grown in bioreactors seems uncertain. Consumers are turning their backs on it, if we look at the financial results of many of the companies that were once the pioneers and leaders of this sector, which promised to offer a product that had the same taste and texture as meat - and that it even bled - but that it did not come from a slaughtered animal, with the advantages that this entailed for the environment, health and animal welfare.

According to the opinion of Francesc Xavier Medina, anthropologist and director of the Unesco chair of Food, Culture and Development, "the novelty boom that these products represented has passed, without them being able to be competitive and stand out compared to animal flesh”.

In addition, the refrain of the song that repeated that vegans and veggies did not eat meat exclusively for these three reasons – health, environmental concern and animalism – and not because they did not like its taste also seems worn out today, as the 'a summer song in mid-November.

A refrain that said that this fake meat had the same taste as that of animal origin and that ended up presenting a double problem. On the one hand, it wasn't true. It's one thing that many people don't want to go back and eat it, and another that thanks to flavorings like valerian it has an earthy taste that can remind you of meat. On the other hand, many people have ended up assuming a cognitive dissonance to eat something that tastes like a food that they are ethically convinced is bad to eat, no matter what the reason. In the end, the taste was important.

But things are better understood in their context and what families have had to face since the war in Ukraine began has not been the best. Inflation has hit family budgets hard, especially because of the rise in food prices and the rise in interest rates. This general increase in the cost of living has meant that the most expensive products have seen their demand cut.

And imitation meat can be much more expensive. Two burgers of 113 g each from Beyond Meat cost 5.95 euros, which puts the price per kilo around 25 euros, far from the 10 to 15 euros that can cost animal meat to make hamburgers. In this sense, the main problem "is that there is not a sufficient mass of customers to make this a financially profitable product", says Medina.

In this way, for example, the quarterly sales of Beyond Meat – one of the pioneering companies – have fallen by 31% during the last quarter. This company which in 2019 had a value of more than 10 billion dollars, five years later is worth less than 1 billion and the value of its shares has been reduced by 85%.

The unknown is, if once this subsistence crisis passes, "demand will recover, which could happen" -says Medina-, or it will be confirmed that plant-based meat has definitively lost favor with consumers, because what what is also incontestable is that there is beginning to be some mistrust about their goodness.

This was acknowledged by the executive director of Beyond Meat, Ethan Brown, who in a video conference with his investors assured that the company was struggling to attract new customers due to the perception that its products are unhealthy and excessively processed. "Consumers are looking for products that solve their problems, if they don't, they don't buy them", adds the anthropologist.

The reality is that to read the label on a package of their hamburgers - or those of any product in the same sector - is to find that among its 20 or 30 ingredients many are additives - the famous E-XXX - made commonly used by the large ultra-processed food industry. Comparisons can be difficult if when you buy hamburgers in a supermarket and check the ingredient label it only reads “100% beef”, beyond that it may or may not be true and it does not specify what kind of exploitation - macro farms or extensive livestock - the meat comes from. Everything is even more complicated because for some time there have been products that are also an alternative to protein of animal origin and that, moreover, are much cheaper and are little or not at all processed such as tofu, tempeh (soybean and fermented mold) and legumes. If the argument that they are healthier products than the original falls, serious problems begin in earnest, as Brown recognized.

In this sense, the great explosion of meat substitute products that has taken place has not helped either. Companies like Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods were born in the shelter of Silicon Valley and presented themselves as disruptive companies that aimed to change the food industry by making it cleaner and healthier, and even fairer. But here was the large traditional food industry that immediately saw another niche business. Being seen in the refrigerated shelves of supermarkets next to the products of large corporations has ended up contaminating the image of these companies that were presented as something new and different, and the consumer has ended up putting them in the same bag.

And of course, we are not talking about a common consumer. Thinking that fake meat burgers are only aimed at vegans is a mistake. In fact, they do not eat those made from animal cells. Vegans, for example, represent barely 1% of the population in Spain. There is no business here and that is why the goal is between 10 and 15% of people who define themselves as flexi-vegetarian or veggie fiendly. People for whom issues such as health and the environmental cost of what they eat are important. If the consumer's perception of this kind is that a product does not meet these characteristics, he will not buy it, explains Medina.

In this sense, the United States organization Center for Food Safety insisted on this aspect when it said that "replacing conventional animal products with ultra-processed, poorly studied and poorly regulated genetically engineered products is not the solution to our climate crisis and industrial farms".

Finally, over the last few years the meat industry has worked hard to convince consumers that another livestock farm is possible. A handful of scientific studies have appeared that cast doubt on the fact that meat production cannot be more environmentally friendly.

There is no denying their environmental costs, but perhaps another reason for the decline in sales of these products is that the general public is coming to a more nuanced position on the meat production process.