Are plant-based meat alternatives destined to fail?

Is there a path forward to success?

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Plant-based meat alternatives looked ready to conquer the world, but with sales falling, they will need to rethink their strategy for success.

“I’m not here to defend plant-based meat, but it’s important to look at it so we know how to react to consumer demand,” JP Frossard, vice president, consumer foods analyst, Rabobank, said at the 2023 Chicken Marketing Summit.

Plant-based is different than alternative proteins, Frossard said. He defines alternative proteins as cell-based, insect-based or precision fermentation. Plant-based are products that harness the power of plants – whole grain, whole plant, fruits and vegetables.

These two trends do, of course, overlap with plant-based meat alternatives (PBMA).

Plant-based meat alternatives lose their halo

Sales of plant-based meat alternatives soared during COVID-19, which worried the meat and poultry industries. Frossard attributed the pandemic jump to consumer boredom. They were stuck at home, tired of their usual recipes and proteins and thus looked for new items to try.

However, volume and dollar sales have slowed throughout 2022 and 2023. Inflation likely slowed some of this, especially because PBMA usually cost more than other proteins, namely chicken.

But the biggest factor behind slowed sales is that the meat-mimicking formula has hit a wall, Frossard said.

Plant-based meat alternatives were initially marketed as more sustainable and healthier than other proteins and consumers learned that was in fact not true when they read the labels.

What’s next for plant-based meat alternatives?

So where does PBMA go from here?

First, consumers have begun to realize that PBMA contain only limited amounts of plants. Plant-based meat alternatives could benefit from highlighting the nutritional benefits of plants in their products, Frossard explained.

Plant-based meat alternatives also need to focus on more than just sustainability. Consumers also care about taste, convenience and clean labels, and numerous studies have shown that consumers won’t pay more just for sustainability.

“Plant-based meat alternatives have focused a lot on the sustainability message,” he said, “but there’s a missed opportunity in investing in clean label packaging to make the consumer feel better about eating it.”

Speaking of price, once PBMA reaches price parity with other proteins, quality will become even more important. With all else equal, consumers will choose the product that is better tasting, healthier or otherwise best meets their values.

Food manufacturers shouldn’t be the only ones responsible for moving the PBMA market forward, Frossard added. This responsibility needs to be shared throughout the entire supply chain.

Foodservice may see greater success with plant-based meat alternatives than retail, but the market is moving away from meat-mimicking products like the Impossible Whopper and instead toward the Cauliflower Sandwich from Chick-fil-A. Newer innovations are geared to give vegetarians or even flexitarians another option, rather than replace meat.

Attend the 2024 Chicken Marketing Summit

The 2024 Chicken Marketing Summit will be held at the Renaissance Birmingham Ross Bridge Golf Resort & Spa in Birmingham, Alabama, on July 29-31, 2024.

Serving a unique cross section of the chicken supply chain, the Chicken Marketing Summit explores issues and trends in food marketing and consumer chicken consumption patterns and purchasing behavior. 

Registration will open in early 2024. 


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