Plant-based meat was having a moment before the pandemic, nabbing celebrity investors, record-setting IPOs, “Whopper” fast-food deals and high-end chefs who transformed pea protein and soy into savory, expectation-defying deliciousness.
Then the pandemic hit, restaurants closed and many Americans were stuck at home battling anxiety and sourdough starters. Industry experts wondered if enthusiasm for this new food category would falter and sales flag — would plant-based meat turn out to be a fad rather than a movement? It fleetingly looked grim: last April plant-based protein shipments to restaurants fell 27%, according to market research firm NPD Group.
But it appears that those worries were ill-founded. “Alt-meat” has emerged stronger than ever, much of it because of one thing: price.
Myriad pandemic pressures upended the pricing formulas for both traditional meat and plant-based proteins, making alt-meat a more competitive choice at the grocery store, far more quickly than any expert could have predicted.
It used to be that plant-based proteins generated a ton of hype and heady righteousness for health-oriented and environmentally focused consumers, yet a pound of ground Impossible Burger was still priced way more than double that of even the fanciest ground beef — making this new generation of faux meat a reach for the cost-conscious cook.
Supply-chain problems and virus outbreaks in meat-processing plants have led to meat price increases that far outstrip those of groceries overall. Meanwhile, it’s getting easier and less expensive for companies to create a lot more of these plant-based proteins, bringing down the costs of the soy and pea-protein meats, dairy and eggs much faster than anticipated.
A pound of ground Beyond Meat is down to about $5.70. Beef prices, up 3.3% from a year ago, mean that ground beef can cost between $4.10 and $6, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Impossible Foods has cut its restaurant prices twice in the past year, and in February, the company cut retail prices by 20%, bringing the price of two quarter-pound patties down to $5.49.
“We plan to keep lowering prices as we achieve new production records and economies of scale and ultimately undercut the price of ground beef from cows,” said Impossible Foods President Dennis Woodside in an email.
Even plant-based egg prices are coming down. Matt Riley, senior vice president of global partnerships at Eat Just, said the company took its mung-bean-based Just Egg from $7.99 to $5.99 in March 2020 and then down to $3.99 in January of this year — about the price of many pasture-raised eggs at the farmers market.
These price reductions, against a backdrop of surging grocery prices overall, have pushed the skeptics and the curious over the edge: They’re trying it. Beyond Meat’s grocery store revenue was up 108% in 2020, with more people reportedly becoming repeat customers. And while Impossible Foods, a private company, doesn’t release sales numbers, in 2020 it expanded retail sales from fewer than 150 grocery stores to 17,000 stores, as well as via direct-to-consumer sales.
And the playing field got more crowded. In a year when groceries were just about the only thing consumers were buying, an eye-popping 112 new plant-based meat, egg and dairy brands hit grocery aisles in 2020, reflecting some $3.1 billion worth of new investments in so-called “alternative proteins,” according to the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes alternatives to traditional meat, dairy and eggs.
Also, even as many restaurants were reduced to takeout, delivery and limited indoor dining, plant-based proteins on restaurant menus jumped by 118% in 2020, according to Datassential, a food market research company.
While the plant-based industry is growing, it still represents a minuscule part of the $1.4 trillion global meat market, said Steve Meyer, an economist with Partners for Production Agriculture.
“A lot of the things that have been said about those products have always dealt with growth rates,” Meyer said. “But when you start at zero, the growth rates are pretty darn high.”
John Robinson, senior vice president of membership and communications for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said that meat substitutes did not encroach upon beef sales during the pandemic, citing NielsenIQ data showing beef sales volume was up 2% in 2020. He said meat substitutes still represent less than 1% of the market volume: “This tells us that consumers still prefer beef over alternative proteins,” he said.
In other words, Big Meat isn’t scared.
The irony is, Big Meat and massive agribusinesses are driving down prices for plant-based products. Hedging their bets, Smithfield, Perdue, Hormel, Tyson and other huge meat companies have jumped into the fray. The price of Tyson’s Raised & Rooted spicy plant-based nuggets also inched down 24% during the pandemic. Plus, food-processing giants such as Archer-Daniels-Midland are developing “hundreds of different prototypes to fine-tune and customize to customers’ needs,” said Wendy Van Buren, the global commercial growth leader of alternative proteins for ADM. She said her mission is to make products that are more “accessible” to customers — meaning cheaper.
Lewis Bollard, program officer at Open Philanthropy, a research foundation that gives grants in areas including global health and farm animal welfare, said big food companies such as Cargill or Tyson help drive the ability to produce ingredients and products at a larger scale, building new layers of infrastructure to get them onto supermarket shelves.
“Plant-based start-ups are different than tech start-ups, because you need enormous production capacity. It’s a huge challenge going from almost nothing a decade ago to trying to compete with the animal agriculture industry that has had 1,000 years to scale up,” he said. Plus, as the big companies buy larger quantities of ingredients like yellow peas and mung beans, the price they pay drops, Bollard said.
One reason some people may be exploring plant-based proteins could be the growing number of people concerned about personal health and weight gain during the pandemic, according to Wendy Wesley, a nutritionist in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“My phone is blowing up with people who’ve gained the covid 30,” she said. “They know the way out of this is through plant proteins. I’m not a vegan or vegetarian, but I’m always looking for ways to replace an animal protein with a plant protein, and my clients are in lockstep with me.”
She said that before the pandemic, prices on plant-based protein products was an issue: “People said, ‘Wow, that’s expensive,’ so coming down in price may turn some people into experimenters.”