Keith Nunes 2019KANSAS CITY — The trajectory of the meat alternative category may become clearer in 2020. A plethora of products are now available on retail shelves and restaurant menus, and next year consumers will vote with their food dollars to show how rapidly the category may grow. Many of the industry’s largest companies and several maturing start-ups are betting the trajectory will be steep.

This bet assumes mainstream consumers, those who are not committed to vegetarianism or veganism, will regularly seek products that cook and taste like animal-based meat but are not formulated using such ingredients. The “flexitarian” consumer — someone who enjoys both animal-based and animal-free products — has been identified as a key purchaser to drive category growth.

Published data do little to clarify the issue. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example, in its November Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry Outlook report, is forecasting per capita disappearance of red meat and poultry to rise to 223.9 lbs in 2020 from 222.8 lbs in 2019 and 219.5 lbs in 2018. Consumption of beef, chicken and pork are all forecast to rise next year. Per capita disappearance of turkey, lamb and mutton are forecast to decline 0.4 lbs combined. A rise in meat consumption is an indicator of meat processor sentiment about the market’s outlook despite the attention meat alternative introductions have received this year.

Demographic changes also are muddying the outlook picture. The number of annual eating occasions per capita in the United States has been steadily declining, according to The NPD Group. Today, there are 1.5 per cent fewer eating occasions — breakfast, lunch and dinner — than in 2014. Underlying the decline is an aging population that eats fewer meals. Adding to the competitive pressure for share of stomach is a shift away from traditional meals to snacking, which limits the occasions for consumers to enjoy a meat alternative, because few are available in snack formats.

Many analysts point to the history of milk alternatives as an indicator of what the future holds for meat alternatives. Yet such a comparison indicates category growth will be slow. Milk alternatives had been available for decades before becoming a fixture at retail throughout the United States.

Another challenge to growth is meat alternatives are mimicking ground applications, the cheapest form of beef. While merchandising meat alternatives in the retail meat case is considered a significant benefit, the consistent price difference may wear on sales as the uniqueness of the products dissipates.

Finally, plant-based meat alternatives and their supply chain are far from immune to criticism. Specific criticisms were raised by market researchers contributing to the Specialty Food Association’s Trendspotter Panel report who forecast in 2020 consumers will closely scrutinize meat alternative ingredient lists, nutrition profiles and production practices.

Given the small size of the meat alternative market, there will be category growth in 2020 as more products reach more stores and menus. But there is enough evidence to indicate the path to significant scale will be long. Those companies betting on rapid sales acceleration may need to temper expectations.