The Year That Was: Fake meat takes off

Many ranchers view faux burgers as a threat, but others argue they’re a sign that opportunities abound

Faux burgers have been around for a while but in 2019, some sort of switch was flipped and all of a sudden everyone was talking about them.

The pivotal moment came when the food-service industry decided to embrace Beyond Meat — which more closely mimics the look and texture of actual hamburgers, said Sylvain Charlebois, a Dalhousie University professor and director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab.

“Back in April, everything was endorsed by the retailers,” he said. “That’s when Beyond Meat really entered the grocery chains and that’s been quite successful. Since then, there has been this huge influx of capital to develop new products all over the place, which is making the marketplace noisier.”

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And the plant-based meat movement isn’t just about beef. Loblaws has its own plant-based chicken brand, and KFC has also begun offering faux chicken.

“This is just the beginning. There is development around chicken, pork, kangaroo and dairy,” said Charlebois. “Investors are funding plant proteins to replace every animal protein out there. The market is changing very quickly. We shouldn’t be surprised by that.”

And it is having an impact on meat sales, but not a huge one.

“This year, we did some calculations at the lab,” he said. “We are expecting meat sales to drop by $150 million by the end of the year, in retail.

“The money is shifting toward tofu, for example, or other products that contain vegetable protein. Tofu sales are up 25 per cent in Canada this year. That’s real money moving away from meat.”

Fear of lost sales likely drove the outcry from farmers and ranchers when McDonald’s Canada announced it would be testing a plant-based burger.

John Betts, the CEO of the fast-food giant’s Canadian division, got a lot of those calls and emails — but he took it in stride.

“The first time I heard something like this was in the 1980s, when we had a product like this — it was called salad,” said Betts, who has worked for McDonald’s for 49 years.

“Back then, it was a big deal … there were people who said we shouldn’t be in that business. We’re a burger place.”

Salads have never been a substantial part of McDonald’s business, but that’s not the point, he said.

“Salad was about expanding dietary options. This (plant-based burgers) is doing the same thing,” he said.

Livestock producers need to remember they’re producing an authentic and nutritious product that people love, said Charlebois.

“Consumers will remain loyal to the product. Ninety-one per cent of Canadians still buy meat on a regular basis. They just buy less of it.”

He pointed to forecasts that meat prices will increase by four to five per cent in 2020.

“Consumers will continue to buy and want the product, regardless of price,” he said. “Retailers know that, and that’s why prices will increase.”

But producers can expect to see more changes in the marketplace in the year ahead, he added.

“It is an excited marketplace,” he said. “If you have different options to purchase, you are actually engaging the consumer.

“The consumer will want to buy something. It could be chicken, pork, beef or something else. You are increasing the likelihood of purchase.”

Livestock producers need to see fake meat as a clear sign that consumers are eager to try out new products — and then find ways to deliver them.

“Market fragmentation will bring more opportunity to all agri-food sectors,” he said. “I tell people this is an opportunity for the livestock industry. If you push back on the A&Ws of the world, you’re going to miss out.”

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, she has also published two collections of poetry and a biography about a Sikh civil rights activist. Her freelance work has appeared in numerous publications across Canada.

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