Plant-based meats: op-ed on THAT Bloomberg article!

If you’re in the alternative protein industry, you’ve probably seen a recent article from Bloomberg titled, “Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods wanted to upend the world’s $1 trillion meat industry. But plant-based meat is turning out to be a flop.”

And if you haven’t read it, you’ve almost certainly read about it. That’s because, in reaction, there’s been no shortage of blog posts, newsletters, Linkedin think pieces, and full-page ads in the New York Times declaring why – depending on where you fall on the matter – Bloomberg had it right or wrong.

Much of the reaction from those in the alt-protein industry centered on the article’s focus on two companies, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. Many argued (rightly) that the plant-based meat industry is much bigger than just these two companies, and any analysis of the space and its prospects that doesn’t include a fuller analysis of the new products on the horizon (like those based on fungi/mycelium) misses why so many are still so excited about the industry’s prospects.

But as Rachel Konrad, former head of comms for Impossible Foods, said on a Spoon podcast, the industry “doth protest too much.”

After all, it’s just one article, right? Why was there so much pushback?

The strong reaction can be partly attributed to Bloomberg’s place in the media ecosystem. Not only is its journalism viewed on par with the Wall Street Journal from a business reporting perspective (though they don’t have as many journalists covering as many beats at the WSJ), but unlike the WSJ, it’s a weekly news magazine with cover stories.

I mean, just look at that cover:

Despite print media’s long and slow death spiral, a story like this still has an outsize impact, especially in publications like Bloomberg. They can become, in a sense, self-fulfilling prophecies.

Don’t believe it? Just ask Juicero’s founders. Those familiar with Juicero’s demise will remember the final nail in the coffin for the connected juicer startup was a Bloomberg piece. Within days after publication, the company and its high-priced juicer became a symbol of Silicon Valley excess and over-engineered solutions. It wasn’t long before the company’s venture backers backed out, and soon after, the company was toast.

But the plant-based meat industry is not Juicero. It’s an industry made up of literally hundreds of companies, backed by billions of dollars of venture funding, and it has achieved some measure of success in that many of these new products have become established on quick service menus and occupy space on grocery store and warehouse store meat aisles.

I suspect the real reason, though, the article touched a nerve was it pointed out a truth that not enough executives in the plant-based industry and food retail are ready to admit: some of the earliest and loudest voices in the plant-based industry over-promised early on about how quickly consumers would embrace their products.

Take these quotes from Pat Brown, founder of Impossible, made on stage in 2015 at a TED talk and later in an interview with the New Yorker:

“I know it sounds insane to replace a deeply entrenched, trillion-dollar-a-year global industry,” he said, “but it has to be done.” Four years later, when the New Yorker profiled Impossible, Pat predicted his company would “take a double-digit portion of the beef market” by 2024 before sending it into a “death spiral.” Next he would target “the pork industry and the chicken industry and say, ‘You’re next!’ and they’ll go bankrupt even faster.”

Ethan Brown has spoken in similar terms about how he felt his company would transform people’s diets around the world. From the Bloomberg piece:

Just like technology had rendered the horse-drawn carriage obsolete, he told the crowd at the New York Times’ climate conference this past fall, so, too, would his system of breaking down plants transform the protein at the centre of the plate. “This,” he said, “is something that I feel is inevitable.”

I don’t blame either founder for articulating what they see as the ultimate goal of plant-based meat. Both are visionary founders and are driven to change what they see as a cruel industry that is, according to them, steering the planet toward a calamity caused by the climate impact of industrial agriculture. The goal of the plant-based meat industry – to replace industrially-produced meat from animals with a more sustainable alternative – makes sense and should be the goal.

But the reality is that these visionaries over promised early market acceptance because, in part, they underestimated how difficult it would be to convince consumers to change their diets.

Part of this has to do with the product themselves; neither Beyond nor Impossible are what you could describe as healthy when compared to a pure, simple ingredient plant-based diet. Even more importantly, the products’ taste profiles aren’t nearly close enough to what they are replacing, residing still in what chef Ali Bouzari describes as the ‘Uncanny Valley of Food.’

As a result, the consumer dietary profile that Pat Brown has said many times he most wanted to target – the carnivore – doesn’t believe these products are suitable replacements for something they’ve been eating their whole lives. Arguments about animal welfare don’t resonate with the vast majority of consumers, and the health arguments – which have the potential to resonate with a wide swath of consumers – haven’t convinced the vast majority of people who have been told – rightly or wrongly – that these products are going to be better for them.

The hard truth is consumers are creatures of habit. They eat what they know, and convincing them to change their behaviour is difficult. When consumers do change their diets, it’s often due to exposure to a mix of influencer-fed trends and ideas passed on to them by friends or family. Plant-based meats just haven’t caught on, and in fact, you could point to an opposite trend, where a contingent of consumers argue (again rightly or wrongly) against these foods because they’ve come to believe they are too “processed” and this is somehow unhealthy.

The purchase price also factors in. While consumers with plant-forward diets may be ok paying a premium for an alternative product that satiates a desire for meat, most consumers are not. They wonder why not just buy the real thing at a lower price? And sure, the price premium for plant-based meat has gotten smaller, but the products are still, on the whole, more expensive than those spit out by the fine-tuned, highly-scaled machinery of industrial animal agriculture.

Now, the plant-based meat industry finds itself in a tricky spot in 2023.

A majority of consumers not only don’t believe these products are any healthier than the real thing but they also aren’t convinced plant-based alternatives taste as good as meat yet. In other words, the average consumer sees plant-based meat – as represented by Beyond and Impossible – as expensive processed food, and no amount of New York Times full-page ads will change that.

But all hope is not lost. The plant-based meat industry is still in the early innings, with much of its promise ahead of it in a pipeline of new products that are either on the market or slated to arrive soon.

Tasty meat analogs that use mycelium, jackfruit, or other ingredients are already here, and most consumers have yet to try them. Products using novel ingredients derived using new approaches that use some combination of artificial intelligence, precision fermentation, and genetic engineering are on their way.

New formats, like plant-based whole-cut meat and fish, have yet to make their way onto the vast majority of consumer plates. And let’s not forget to mention those products made with real animal cells in the form of cultivated meat, which are now on the fast track toward consumer plates in 2023.

The alternative meat industry has a lot of work ahead of it, but the best way to move forward is to examine its challenges in the cold light of day. That’s what we’re doing now, and we’ll look back at the Bloomberg article in 5 or 10 years and laugh and wonder what we were all worried about.

Source: The Spoon, written by Michael Wolf. The Spoon provides daily reporting and insight into the food tech revolution, see more here!