With headlines heralding the benefits to humans, animals and the planet that plant-based products provide, one could be forgiven for thinking that these so-called “meats” might replace the real thing.
Some state governments are taking steps they say will ensure consumers understand that when they purchase the alternatives, they are not buying meat. In 2018, Missouri became the first state to pass legislation criminalizing the word “meat” on packaging for plant-based alternatives. Meat is defined as originating from an animal, not from plants or cells in a lab. Several other states, including Mississippi and Arkansas, have enacted “truth in labeling” legislation to regulate certain descriptive words on food packaging, including meat and rice.
In Missouri, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the state, arguing that the law violates constitutional principles, including free speech. While that debate is best left for others to argue, the fact is that plant-based products are making their way into grocery stores across the country because there is consumer demand for them.
When Anne-Marie Roerink of 210 Analytics spoke at the Annual Meat Conference in March, she did not advise brands and retailers to shun plant-based products. She instead suggested they leverage the positive momentum around interest in plant-based alternatives to draw shoppers to the meat department.
“If bringing in some plant-based alternatives gives us the chance to also sell them on the meat purchase, I think that might be a great way to drive people into the department,” she said. “A lot of research shows that when people buy the plant-based meat alternatives, meat is in the basket as well.”
Roerink has for 14 years prepared the annual report on meat as shoppers see it. For the 2019 Power of Meat: An In-Depth Look at Meat Through the Shoppers’ Eyes, 1,500 shoppers were asked questions about meat. Data from IRI and Nielsen are overlaid with the survey to paint a picture of the state of meat today.
According to the report, the “vast majority” of people—86 percent—are meat-eaters. About 5 percent are vegetarian/vegan and 10 percent are “flexitarians.” Roerink zeroed in on the latter that eat a mostly plant-based diet and occasionally include meat. She compared that 10 percent block of respondents to swing voters.
“Let’s make sure we talk to them about everything good about meat and poultry to make sure we move them more to our camp than going off to the vegetarian and vegan lifestyle,” Roerink said. “There is a lot of discussion in the media going on about plant-based eating, but the vast majority of people define themselves as meat eaters. Let’s be talking about that.”
Across the store, sales of plant-based meat alternatives increased 19.2 percent in 2018, totaling $878 million. Plant-based alternative products sales at $1 billion are just a fraction of meat sales, which rang up nearly $90 billion in 2018.
“We really have nothing to be afraid of,” Roerink said. “But give credit where credit is due: 73 percent of shoppers occasionally serve plant-based alternatives—and that might be things like legumes and lentils and beans.”
Fully half of the people surveyed for the Power of Meat report said they definitely would or might buy plant-based alternatives. Younger consumers are the most attracted to the products, with 46 percent of Gen Z and 42 percent of Millennial respondents saying they either already buy or definitely would buy them.
“Those are shoppers that we’re not seeing a whole lot of in our meat department,” Roerink said. “These are the people who will largely drive the meat purchase for the next 40 years.”
She said that in Europe, meat departments have embraced blended and plant-based alternatives. A display in one meat department she saw included a sign asking shoppers whether they had everything for a barbecue, including meat, fish and vegetarian items for their guests. There even was a display encouraging occasional meals without meat, suggesting legumes instead. Roerink said she chased down the manager of that meat department to talk to him about those suggestions. He told her that at first, he fought the idea of suggesting legumes instead of meat. Then he fell in love with it.
“We’re saying it’s OK to skip meat every once in a while because (shoppers) stay involved and engaged in his category and he’s actually seeing sales go up,” Roerink said.
She said one of the questions she is asked most often about plant-based alternatives is where in the store retailers should stock them. Most of the sales, 72 percent, are in the frozen department. Although many vegans/vegetarians prefer not to shop the meat department at all, it could be a mistake to place alternative products mostly in the freezer. The Power of Meat survey asked the consumer where they should be located.
“They slightly lean toward the meat department,” Roerink said. “If you think about it, it’s really probably a matter of need states. They’re looking for the dinner protein and that’s why they come to the meat department.”