- Just over half of consumers think the food industry should focus on meat-free options to address potential meat shortages from plant closures and processing slowdowns, according to a poll from Rethink Priorities in conjunction with the Humane Society of the United States, which was reported on by Bloomberg. The poll of 998 people was conducted at the end of May.
- Half of respondents said they don't think the meat industry cares about the health of its workers. Nearly two-thirds said they don't think the meat industry cares about the treatment of animals.
- “Covid is shining a light for consumers to start evaluating their own choices and whether or not they want to continue to buy meat,” Josh Balk, vice president of farm animal protection for the Humane Society, told Bloomberg.
As consumer interest in plant-based meat has picked up in recent years, it seems the pandemic might have accelerated it.
Sales of plant-based meat were already on an upward trajectory. According to SPINS data reported by the Good Food Institute and the Plant Based Food Association, sales of plant-based meat were up 18% last year, with the category worth more than $939 million. Refrigerated plant-based meat saw sales increase 63%, and plant-based meat now accounts for 2% of retail packaged meat sales.
Plant-based meat has been one of the steady winners at the grocery store since the beginning of the pandemic. In the 13 weeks ending May 30, sales of fresh meat alternatives are up 239.8% compared to last year, according to Nielsen statistics.
While it will take more time to see the true impact of the pandemic on sales and consumer interest in plant-based meat, if anything could more quickly shift public opinion, it could be this kind of outbreak. After all, coronavirus originated from animals — a point that has become a rallying cry for animal rights activists and plant-based meat companies alike.
The virus' easy spread and devastating impact on people can be illustrated by its impact on the meat industry. Workers crowded together along a line to quickly process meat have been fertile ground for outbreaks. Thousands have fallen ill, which has resulted in temporarily idling several processing plants. And, even though most plants are running at some capacity, producers still need to euthanize animals that would have been slaughtered for food because there is no space for them on farms or in plants running at lower output rates.
Plant-based meat, however, doesn't have any of those issues. The factories where it is made are more high-tech and naturally socially distant facilities. Larger plant-based meat manufacturers including Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have taken precautions against coronavirus outbreaks in their plants. They have not experienced the kind of issues that their conventional counterparts have seen.
Plant-based meat's health halo also could help increase its popularity right now. Even though scientists have said more research is needed to determine whether plant-based meat is healthier than what comes from animals, consumers in general feel like it's better for them. A 2018 study from DuPont Nutrition & Health found 52% of people who eat more plant-based food said it makes them feel healthier. And in a time where personal health is key, consumers want to do what they can to feel better.
Still, there are a couple of places where conventional meat still triumphs over its plant-based counterparts. One is variety. While plant-based meat as a segment has grown tremendously in the last several years, products are still fairly limited. Consumers wanting burgers, sausages and even chicken nuggets have a choice between conventional and plant-based options. But those who are interested in steak or seafood can only eat something animal based, even though non-meat alternative companies are working on bringing some of these options to consumers soon.
Conventional meat also costs less than its plant-based counterparts. Even with prices going up at the grocery store — conventional meat cost 15.6% more during the week ended May 30 than it did a year ago, according to Nielsen — plant-based meat has not yet been able to catch up. Plant-based meat companies say price parity is a long-term goal they are working toward, but note sales are going up regardless of cost.
With the economy likely teetering toward recession, and millions of Americans out of work, the question is whether consumers will be willing to pay a premium price for plant-based products. So far, the numbers may be on the plant-based companies' side. A study from Kearney showed 83% of consumers took sustainability into consideration when making purchases in April — a number that increased as the pandemic went on. If consumers are able to prioritize sustainability over price, plant-based meat may see even steeper gains as the year goes on.