Demand for fake meat is waning, surveys show.
You can’t fool Mother Nature. Yet, it seems some will never quit trying. Take, for example, plant-based meat alternatives, better known as fake meat.
“You’ve got a bunch of ingredients on the shelf,” says Ty Lawrence, Ph.D., meat scientist and director of the Beef Carcass Research Center at West Texas A&M University in Canyon.
“The winner is the one that can make a hamburger patty or chicken nugget or something that’s ground, formed and restructured out of plant-based ingredients.”
Indeed, plant-based meat alternatives need extrusion, forming, molding and a long list of ingredients to mimic what real beef patties look and taste like. Highly processed within a food processing facility, it is the textbook definition of factory food. Then there is the real stuff.
“[Fake meat] is infinitely more processed than taking a muscle from a steer, putting it in a grinder and making a hamburger patty,” Lawrence says. “That is about as minimal of processing as you could have, compared to what goes on behind all of these food science experiments.”
Walking Like a Duck
While a number of issues and concerns swirl around the most recent iterations of fake meat to hit the market, the biggest is truth in labeling.
That is according to Dustin Dean, a cow-calf producer and Texas & Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association director. He is co-owner and general manager of Dean and Peeler Premium Angus Beef, a branded beef packing and fabrication operation in Floresville with retail stores in several South Texas communities.
Remember the old saying that if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. That, in essence, is what Dean has told the Texas Legislature twice in testimonies on behalf of Texas & Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association regarding the labels fake meat companies put on their products.
“First things first, we just want a level playing field,” he says. “It’s a good thing that we are developing technology where a supplemental or additional protein product can be made out of plant-based raw material. We are not against that at all.”
In fact, Dean welcomes the rivalry, which he acknowledges as an important product for underdeveloped parts of the world where food supplies are limited.
“We’re not against more competition in the protein sector, because we believe that our product, Texas beef, is the most wholesome, safest, most nutritious that there is anywhere in the world,” Dean says. “We like competition. We just need it to be fair competition.”
To that end, Texas & Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association is asking state legislators to put real beef on the same playing field by labeling fake meat for what it really is.
“We don’t believe they can use words like ‘meat,’” Dean says. “We don’t believe they should be able to use words like ‘burger.’ We don’t believe that they should be able to use words that are solely intended, from a marketing standpoint, to make the product represent itself as something that it’s really not.”
A look back at previous USDA labeling regulations shows the precedent is already set.
“By law, imitation crab meat has to be labeled as just that, an imitation of crab meat and not the real thing,” Dean says.
Beyond that, he argues that if he were to slap a ribeye steak label on a box of briskets and sell it at ribeye price, he would be severely apprehended. While the Texas Legislature has yet to pass a labeling law, Dean says the temperature of state politicians on both sides of the aisle is positive.
Texas & Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association will continue to work with legislators from both parties to achieve a plant-based labeling law.
Voting with Their Dollars
While the beef business at both the state and federal level continues to lobby for truth in labeling for fake meat, consumers ultimately have the final vote on whether or not they will buy and consume plant-based alternatives.
The votes are in.
Nationally, fake meat purchases peaked in the third quarter of 2020, with 34% of consumers saying they consume alternatives on a weekly or more basis, says Mike Simone, executive director, market research and intelligence with National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
It’s been declining ever since. Third quarter of 2022 survey results show that about 25% of consumers say they consume alternatives on a weekly or more basis, Simone says.
However, those consumers aren’t buying plant-based alternatives exclusively.
“They also consume beef, chicken, pork and fish in similar levels to others who don’t consume alternatives at the same level,” he says. “So, it’s part of their diet, but it’s not exclusive for most people. They include it in their diet, but it continues to go down.”
That’s national data. Based on what Lawrence saw during the pandemic, Texas consumers had a different response.
“You went into a H-E-B in South Texas, there was not an iota of a package of beef, pork, chicken, turkey, lamb. Nothing. But the alternative meat case was stocked full and unsold,” Lawrence says. “And I don’t doubt but that happened all across the country. People grabbed traditional proteins that they knew would sustain their family and left this food science experiment on the shelf.”
A Plant-Based Odyssey
Many, from the mid-70s on up, likely recall what passed for a hamburger patty in the school cafeteria. Jayson Lusk does.
“I joke, when I was in the school cafeteria, about whether the burgers were mixed with soy or oatmeal or something else,” says the head of the Department of Agricultural Economics at Purdue and expert on consumer shopping behavior.
“Often, I think, these kinds of plant-based additives have been used to bring down the cost of ground products, to extend them,” Lusk says.
“That’s a perception a lot of people have. What’s new about the new products, whether it’s Beyond or Impossible, is they really are a bit different than the old veggie burgers.”
According to Lawrence, MorningStar Farms introduced meatless meats in 1975. Then in the mid-80s, Quorn came out with their Meatless Patty, which was around 43% fungus-based. Those products never lit up beef producers’ radar. Then came Beyond Beef and the Impossible burger.
Lusk postulates those products still suffer, to some extent, from the reputation of the earlier attempts at producing plant-based alternatives.
“While this new breed of plant-based meat alternatives are better in taste and texture, they do more closely mimic beef, they’re still not quite the same,” Lusk says. “And I think most consumers can taste that in a side-by-side comparison.”
However, if you look at the consumer segment most likely to purchase plant-based alternatives, Lusk says the biggest demographic is age: “They’re much more popular among younger consumers.”
In part, that may be because younger consumers don’t have a school cafeteria hangover about veggie burgers.
But other factors are at play, as well. Novelty, Lusk says, is a big driver, at least at first, of plant-based sales.
Sales were high when the products were first introduced and have been declining ever since. What’s more, those who continue buying plant-based alternatives likely aren’t big beef consumers to begin with, Lusk says.
“None of that is to say these don’t necessarily pose some competitive challenge,” he says. “They do, particularly if they can get their price point down. And I think that’s something that’s likely to happen over the next several years.”
Lusk also notes the target demographic of plant-based products: “Younger consumers tend to place more weight on things like environmental impact and animal welfare when buying. Those are areas where these plant-based alternatives tend to score a little better in terms of people’s perceptions.”
Research showcasing beef’s environmental footprint may help curb this perception. Particularly due to beef’s ability to provide higher-quality nutrition while supporting healthy ecosystems.
Lawrence points to these disparities as factors that may curb investor funding.
“This stuff is lower in nutrition, higher in price and typically is hidden in the grocery store,” he says. “The investor market went crazy in pouring money into this and most of that, if not all, will be ultimately lost.”
What About Cultured Meat?
Lawrence says marketing petri-dish beef is even a greater stretch than plant-based alternatives.
Lab-produced meat involves incubating living muscle cells in a bioreactor. The liquid medium the cells grow in has to include all the nutrients required to cells to grow and divide (i.e. amino acids, fatty acids, hormones, minerals, sugars, vitamins) and other elements a cow naturally produces in the womb.
Then there’s this: Cells grown in culture media include a percentage of antibiotics and antifungals. The resulting product will not have the look or texture of real meat.
“You have this slightly opaque slime that has the texture of Jell-O or pudding,” Lawrence says. “These are cells grown in a tank and pumped from one tank to another like any liquid. These aren’t muscles that contracted to move bones that let an animal run across a pasture.”
The liquified cell-based meat just does not have the same appeal as animal-based muscle cuts that represent tried and true steak, and advancing science to a point of developing muscle-like cuts leaves Lawrence skeptical. You basically must mechanically recreate any body system involved in proliferation of cells.
“In many respects, there’s no way this will be as efficient than an animal walking around securing its own food supply, converting its food into its own cells that we harvest,” he says.
Indeed, in Texas and across the Southwest, beef is king. Plant-based meat alternatives, however, are likely here to stay and will ultimately find their plateau in the protein market.
And that’s OK, Dean says: “Level the playing field. And then let consumers decide for themselves.”
Burt Rutherford, former senior editor of BEEF magazine, now owns Rangeview Strategies based in Wheat Ridge, Colorado.