Headlines are really exciting for plant-based foods these days. “Plant-based menus are taking over at the best fast food chains,” says Fortune; “From Impossible and beyond, plant-based burgers are taking over the world,” says Catering Hospitality; and “five reasons Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are taking over fast food when veggie burgers have failed,” suggests Business intern.
You might think that the main plant-based meats are replacing animal meats. They certainly have to make a huge dent, right?
But, how do we know? What data do we have and what assumptions do we make? A closer look reveals that we may not know very much about what is really going on.
Retail sales data reality check
The latest retail sales data shows available 45% growth in the meat substitutes category in 2020 compared to the previous year. It sounds impressive, and it is certainly a positive sign. But it was also the pandemic, and all retail sales were up, including sales of animal meat.
So, what has vegetable meat done compared to animal meat? Plant-based milks grew twice as fast as animal meat, but high growth is often a reflection of a low starting point (which is why we tend to see less growth in plant-based milks. plants, as it is a more mature category and therefore has less “room to grow” compared to the alt-meat category).
Also, the growth does not tell us anything about the absolute value of the category compared to animal meats. In dollars, retail sales of plant-based meat in 2020 were $ 1.4 billion. Awesome, until you realize that total fresh beef sales alone overcome a whopping $ 30 billion (up $ 5.7 billion from 2019).
In other words, the 2019-2020 increase in fresh beef sales alone was more than four times the total retail sales of all vegetable meats.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at claims that brands like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are replacing animal meat.
This statistic of 90 percent
I have often seen a variation of the claim that 90 percent of plant meat eaters are animal meat eaters, which sounds impressive and probably gave rise to the assumption that animals are saved. But where does this statistic come from?
In 2019, a consumer data company called the NPD Group published this number, but the context is telling. They found that “Consuming plant-based foods is not about rejecting traditional protein sources, because around 90% of users of plant-based foods are not vegetarians or vegans, noting that consumers want options. “
In other words, consumers who eat plants always also eat meat. Why is this a good thing? It seems many are assuming these consumers are moving the animals, but a reasonable reading of the NDP’s conclusions is the exact opposite: While consumers sometimes choose plant-based options, they aren’t giving up on animals anytime soon.
The NPD analyst Explain further: “The country is not becoming more and more vegetarian or vegan. We see meat eaters say, “Hey, how can I get protein in my diet without necessarily adding Following Meat?'”
Other similar complaints come from the companies themselves. According to this 2019 item, Impossible Foods said, “95% of people who order their hamburger regularly consume animal products.” Beyond Meat said, “Purchasing data from one of the nation’s largest conventional retailers has shown that over 90% of consumers who have purchased the Beyond Burger have also purchased animal protein.”
Because I couldn’t find the source of the Impossible Foods statistic, I can’t verify it or understand its context. We can unbox the Beyond Meat claim as it is based on retail purchase data. The source is probably what is called “household panel data”. (This Blog has a good explanation.) This type of data tells us what households generally buy.
So it is very likely that the figure of “90%” simply means that a member of the household who buys Beyond is also consuming animal meat. For example, a parent purchases Beyond for the teenager in the household. The rest of the family still consumes animal meat. In this context, the 90 percent figure makes a lot of sense and is much less impressive. It certainly doesn’t tell us anything about these buyers replacing animal meat.
Are consumers replacing other vegetarian meals?
Let’s explore alternatives to the theory of animal movement. We cannot ignore that many vegans and vegetarians also buy these vegan burgers. While it is true that this group represents only a small part of the population, it is nonetheless important. For these consumers, the only food they replace is other vegetarian options.
Here’s the thing: It could also be true for non-vegetarian consumers.
Much has been said about the “flexitarian” consumer as the primary driver of the growth of plant-based foods. These are consumers who occasionally swap meat for plant-based options. They certainly help to explain the integration and growth of the category, given that a survey estimates this segment at 36 percent of the population.
But we still don’t know if even this population replaces other vegetarian options. We just assume that because they sometimes eat animals, they have to replace animal meat with plant-based foods. But we have no supporting data.
I hear people say, “But these people are New flexitarians. May Beyond and Impossible attract new flexitarians so they must supplant animal meat! Certainly, a viable theory. All I’m saying is, show me the data. It is not enough to pretend that self-proclaimed flexitarians are contributing to sales growth; we still need to know a lot more details about the eating habits of these consumers before we can celebrate.
Even Tyson seems to favor shifting other vegetarian options for obvious reasons: Tyson doesn’t want to cannibalize his own meat sales. In May, the meat giant re-released its “Raised and Rooted” line with 100% plant-based products, after the failure of a “mixed” burger and egg-laden chicken nugget. “People swap out other meals, like carbohydrate-based or vegetable-based meals, and actually replace them with richer protein,” Tyson told Business intern. This means that Tyson’s target customer is not the meat eater but rather someone who eats other veg options – which could be a horrific result for no reduction in animals killed or the harmful environmental impacts of l. factory farming – and the replacement of a healthier “carbohydrate”. or vegetable ”with a highly processed option instead. (See the long list of ingredients for the Tyson burger here and the chicken nugget here.)
The veto vote
I have the same questions for fast food chains such as Burger King, where we attended a huge celebration for the Impossible Whopper. Restaurants are putting plant-based options on the menu not to cannibalize their meat options, but rather to be “trendy” and avoid the dreaded “veto vote”. This happens when a group of diners decide where to eat and someone is a vegetarian or vegan. If your restaurant can’t accommodate this eater, you’re wasting the whole party.
Let’s say a family of five decides to go to Burger King. The teenage daughter is vegan, so she gets the Impossible Whopper. The other four family members regularly order meat burgers. It’s entirely possible in this scenario that the Impossible Whopper on the menu will feed more animals, not less. Why? Because there aren’t many other options for meat eaters who might eat less meat elsewhere, such as a pasta dish or a salad. Here, it’s either to eat the vegan burger or to eat meat.
I have yet to see any data, in the two years since Impossible Whopper debuted at Burger King, that suggests the chain’s sales of the chain’s animal meat burgers are on the decline. Burger King wants more customers, not the same customers by simply replacing an animal burger with an Impossible version. The reason for the Impossible Whopper is to give Burger King a competitive edge over McDonald’s. So with that veto vote in mind, this family of five will go to Burger King instead of McDonald’s.
With no evidence of animal movement, our movement has to eat a big hunk of humble vegan pie until we know for sure that the market is even making a dent in the consumption of animal food. In the meantime, keep enjoying your favorite vegan burger, while arguing for a change in policy. The market is inherently limited in its ability to curb meat consumption.
As i explained beforeTo ignore what the suppliers of the factory farming system are doing in favor of the market is to ignore the underlying causes of what brought us here. It’s like our house has a faulty foundation, and we think giving it a fresh coat of paint will solve the problem. The simple act of swapping animal meat for a plant-based burger in a Whopper only treats a symptom of a much larger problem, while ignoring the underlying structural causes.
Many wonderful organizations are trying to solve these structural and political problems, Agricultural advance at Food and water monitoring at Public justice. Find an organization that is directly addressing the meat industry if you are serious about helping animals.
Michele Simon is a public health lawyer, author, founder and former executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association. Follow her on Twitter.
Photo credit: Beyond Meat