Is a crisis looming for meat and dairy alternatives?


Is there a crisis in the plant-based meat and dairy alternative market?

Slowing sales and a drop in household penetration, trouble at Beyond Meat and others as well as increasing insolvency and company failures among the ambitious start-ups in the sector, would certainly indicate that all is not well.

Yet many commentators continue to predict significant growth of the sector predicting that consumers will increasingly switch from meat and dairy to “healthier” and “more sustainable environmentally friendly” alternatives.

A superficial reading of current press coverage would indicate that the future for plant-based meat and dairy alternatives is very good, despite the significant pain that many of these suppliers are currently facing.

Notwithstanding what many of these articles appear to imply, the current difficulties in the sector cannot be placed entirely at the door of the current cost-of-living crisis. There were indicators of the slowdown before any of us had heard (or read) the term ‘cost-of living crisis.’ Sales and penetration were slowing before Putin’s forces marched into Ukraine.

Vegetarianism and Veganism are not new and have been slowly growing over the past few decades. But there was a step change in attitudes when meat consumption was linked to environmental impact and global warming. Health and animal welfare arguments of a meat free diet had a relatively low impact in the public conscience, but when they were linked with global warming and sustainability the curve took a turn upwards.

The other significant change at about the same time was an acknowledgement that consumers could partake in, and contribute to, this movement away from meat and meat product consumption without giving up meat and meat products altogether. Flexitarians and meat reducers became acceptable members of the movement. This significantly increased the numbers of consumers actively seeking meat and dairy free alternatives even if it was only once or twice a week.

On the whole consumers lack imagination, if they are removing meat from a meal, they want to replace it with something very similar. So, meat replacement products that look like, taste like and cook in much the same way as meat products are popular.

The problem is, however, they do not really look like, taste like or cook in the same way as the meat products.

At first these meat replacement products are novel and fun. Feeding a desire to be more healthy, more sustainable and to contribute to improving the environment. But the novelty does not last. Pair this with growing awareness of a nutritional gap between the products and the meat that they are replacing, suspicion regarding processing and the claimed environmental benefits and it all starts to undermine the very reasons for choosing the plant-based products.

Then they are often more expensive than the meat products that they are replacing (“Since when were vegetables more expensive than meat?”).

The desire for plant-based meat and dairy replacement products appears to be stalling, if not declining.

The meat industry is starting to respond. They appeared to be slow out of the blocks as they were (apparently) suddenly accused of being a major contributor to global warming. But significant research is going into reducing the environmental impact of animal husbandry and meat production and white meats such as poultry and pork are starting to trumpet their much lower environmental impacts compared to beef.

But anyone that sees this as a straight fight between meat and dairy and plant-based alternatives is missing the elephant coming over the horizon.

Cultivated meat is already on sale in Singapore and applications for its approval have been submitted in USA and in UK and Europe. It may be a couple of years before its approval and maybe a little more before we see any mass marketing, but before we know it real meat grown from animal cells without the need to farm animals will be another option available to consumers.

Environmentally conscious meat eaters will have an alternative without compromising on plant-based alternatives.

So as plant-base manufactures attempt to find their way through their current woes they need to be very aware of where they are heading. While further development on flavour and texture to better imitate meat may be of some immediate benefit, they must consider if direct meat and meat-product replacement is really their best bet for a successful future.

Consumers en-mass may lack imagination, but there is plenty of it in the food industry. Asking consumers what they want will get you a faster horse, but understanding what they need is what Henry Ford did. It is possible for plant-based products to create a whole new category of meal-centres, they do not need to mimic meat products.

We must create ranges of exciting products that meet the consumers’ need for simple, easy to understand and cook products, that are healthy, contain essential nutrient needs, and taste great, but are different from most of what we have now. That play to the strengths and natural advantages of their key ingredients, instead of trying to manipulate these to be something that they are not.

In the long run plant-based products are not going to replace meat, but if successful they can create an attractive alternative.

Very soon con summers will have a choice between farmed meat, cultivated meat, or a tasty plant-based alternative. All should be equally attractive, equally tasty and nutritious. The better and more exciting the plant-based options are the more often they will be chosen.

Chris Lukehurst is a Director at The Marketing Clinic:

Understanding the connections between the consumer experience and emotional responses.