It may sound like a science fiction plotline, but it’s really a food industry phenomenon: Fake meat is growing. During the pandemic, alternative meat producers have hit record sales and added new companies and brands.
The U.S. retail plant-based food market grew 27%, reaching just over $7 billion in 2020, according to reports released Monday by the Good Food Institute.
Retail sales for plant-based meat increased by 45%, closing with $1.4 billion in total sales and surpassing the $1 billion mark for the first time. Plant-based dairy categories grew by 24%, to $4.4 billion, while the plant-based egg category grew by 168%, reports show.
“Alternative proteins are a supply-side solution that will help deliver a food system that can lower the risks for future pandemics and antibiotic resistance, decrease climate emissions, and help us feed a world of 10 billion people by 2050,” said Emma Ignaszewski, corporate engagement project manager for the Good Food Institute (GFI). “This industry will create new jobs and opportunities for American workers. And alternative proteins can accomplish all of this while families can still have a hamburger, steak, or chicken breast on their plates at dinnertime.”
In addition to peak sales, the alternative proteins industry also saw a record number of new companies and brands last year. Twenty-three cultivated meat companies launched in 2020, bumping up the total to 76 companies globally — an increase of 43% compared to 2019. Thirteen new companies that produce fermentation-enabled alternative proteins started, making up a total of 51 companies worldwide, a 43% climb from 2019.
Meanwhile, 112 new plant-based meat, egg and dairy brands hit the U.S. market in 2020, comprising a total of 1,205 brands, a 10% increase over the previous year.
And companies are now inventing more than just meatless burgers by experimenting with various types of meat and seafood, the GFI report says.
For example, Top Tier Foods and JAT Oppenheimer developed plant-based Wagyu (Japanese cattle) beef, while Beyond Meat and OmniPork created plant-based pork. Good Catch launched plant-based fish cakes, fish burgers and crab cakes in U.S. grocery stores and in Europe. Field Roast, Rebellyous Foods and SIMULATE (formerly NUGGS) released versions of plant-based chicken.
Charles Stahler, co-director of the Vegetarian Resource Group, said there has always been a demand for natural plant-based products such as rice and peas, but that there appears to be many more processed “quick and easy plant-based foods out there.”
“This is for a combination of many reasons related to health, environment, animal rights, convenience, money being put in by investors, and a larger variety of tastes of foods,” Mr. Stahler has told The Washington Times. “Any additional meatless options being offered is great and helpful to consumers.”
In a February survey, the Vegetarian Resource Group found that 17% of 8- to 17-year-olds are usually eating plant-based meat during the week and 23% are usually drinking plant-based milk. The survey, which involved about 1,000 youth, also found that 57% of 8- to 12-year-olds sometimes or always eat vegetarian (including vegan) when eating out.
“So this seems to indicate long-term there will be a market for the plant-based industry,” Mr. Stahler said.
The cultivated meat industry also made some strides last year in the alternative protein sector including landing the first-in-the-world regulatory approval from Singapore to sell laboratory-grown cultured meat. In December, Eat Just, a San Francisco-based company that develops meat alternatives, got the green light to sell its cultured chicken nuggets at restaurant 1880 in Singapore, which sold the product as invitation-only dinners before adding it to the menu in early 2021.
The regulatory approval of cultured meat from animal cells is not only safe for human consumption and avoids slaughtering animals, but also will help meet the increasing demand for meat production, Eat Just said.
Ms. Ignaszewski of the GFI said that raising animals for food is one of the top contributors of serious environmental problems. She noted conventional meat production uses more land and water, leads to more air pollution and the release of toxic chemicals and leaves a larger carbon footprint than plant-based or cultivated meat production.
The North American Meat Institute said it does not have a position on plant-based foods other than they are labeled accurately and honestly “to allow consumers to choose the products that best meet their families’ needs,” said company spokesperson Sarah Little. She noted that many of the organization’s members have plant-based lines of products.
A national analysis released in March by the Food Industry Association found that Americans were also buying more beef, pork, poultry and lamb during the pandemic, making meat grocery sales increase by 20% from 2019 to 2020. The report also found that about 75% of Americans think that meat is part of a healthy balanced diet, and that 94% say they buy meat to get high-quality protein, according to a press statement.
“Americans feel better than ever about choosing meat as part of healthy, balanced diets. With COVID-19 deepening demand for convenient, affordable food that tastes good and matches Americans’ values, meat fits the bill,” said Julie Anna Potts, North American Meat Institute president, in a statement.
More than 98% of American households bought meat last year, the report says, while 43% of Americans said they buy more meat than before the pandemic mostly because they are cooking more meals at home.