Jul 21, 2020 - Health

How the coronavirus boosted alternative meat

Illustration of a burger stacked high with money

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Thanks in part to pandemic-driven disruptions of conventional meat, sales and interest in plant-based alternatives are taking off, changing the future of food.

Why it matters: Meat-processing plants have proven especially vulnerable to the coronavirus outbreaks and meat consumption adds to climate change. Better-tasting alternatives could shrink that environmental footprint while solidifying the supply chain for protein.

Driving the news: The UN Food and Agriculture Organization reported this week that global per-capita meat consumption is projected to fall to the lowest level in nine years,

  • In the U.S., per-capita meat consumption isn't expected to return to pre-pandemic levels until at least 2025.
  • The 3% decline from 2019 is in part a result of the pandemic-caused economic slowdown, as people around the world cut more expensive meat out of their diet. Beef prices in the U.S. rose 10% in May, in part due to widespread outbreaks of COVID-19 in meat-processing plants.

By the numbers: While demand for conventional meat fell, new plant-based alternatives are on the rise.

  • Grocery store sales of alternative-meat products rose 264% in the nine weeks ending May 2 — faster than they were growing in the weeks before the pandemic, according to data from Nielsen,
  • Impossible Foods, a leading maker of alternative meat, reports its grocery store footprint has increased 18-fold since March, and it expects to see a 50-fold rise by the end of 2020.
  • Last month JBS, the world's biggest meat seller, launched its own brand of plant-based burgers and chorizo alternatives, a sign that conventional producers want in on plant-based business.

Be smart: While vegetarian meat substitutes have always existed — think Tofurky Thanksgivings — what sets the newest range of companies apart is their direct aim at carnivores.

  • In a study released this week Kroger, the nation's largest grocery retailer, found that plant-based meat sales increased 23% when the products were sold in the meat aisle.
  • "For a long time everything in the [alternative] market was very... brown," says Jonathan Gordon, a veteran food scientist. "But now we're seeing foods in the sector where you don't need to compromise on taste.

Some environmentalists criticize the most popular alternative meat products for being overly processed. There's some truth to that charge, but that processed quality has made the alternative sector more resilient to the coronavirus.

  • As the Wall Street Journal reported this week, more than 17,300 meat and poultry workers were infected with COVID-19 in April and May, in part because meat processors employ 3.2 workers per 1,000 sq. ft. of manufacturing space — three times the national average for manufacturers.
  • Alternative protein production tends to be significantly more automated than conventional meat processing, and fewer workers means less vulnerability to outbreaks. Alternative meat facilities can also rapidly ramp up and down production as needed, while conventional meat producers are dependent on the fixed lifecycle of livestock.
  • "All our focus is about enhancing the efficiency of what we do," says Thomas Jonas, the CEO of the Chicago-based alternative protein company Nature's Fynd. "Doing more with less — that should be the motto of our species for the next few decades."

Details: This spring Nature's Fynd began production at a 35,000 sq. ft. manufacturing facility on the site of Chicago's Union Stockyards, a historic meatpacking center and the location for Upton Sinclair's notorious expose "The Jungle."

  • The company produces alternative protein using microbes discovered during research into Yellowstone's hot springs. Nature's Fynd says that at full capacity, it will be able to make as many hamburger substitutes in a year as 16,000 acres of grazing cows, with just 1% of the equivalent greenhouse gases.

The catch: Despite the recent growth, the alternative meat sector is still a fraction of the size of the conventional meat industry.

  • Conventional meat producers are also investing heavily in automation technology that should make their facilities more resilient to pandemics and labor shortages.

The bottom line: COVID-19 could mark a lasting disruption to the most American of foods: the burger.

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