Keith Nunes 2019

KANSAS CITY —The past 12 months have not been kind to many plant-based meat-alternative manufacturers. Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and Maple Leaf Foods have restructured and downsized while JBS USA’s Planterra Foods business unit has ceased operations. These changes do not mean the category isn’t viable. Instead, it means it is not keeping pace with the lofty goals some overzealous executives and investors have set for the market.

Much of the hype during the past few years around plant-based meat alternatives has ignored that the market is not new. Kellogg’s MorningStar Farms, Kraft Heinz’s Boca Burger, Maple Leaf’s LightLife, Tofurky and others have been competing since the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Many of these products traditionally have been sold from the frozen food aisle, and that category has been steady, reaching $786,876,453 in sales during the 52 weeks ended Oct. 2, up 9.1% over calendar year 2021 ended Dec. 26, 2021, according to data from IRI. Sales volume during the 2022 period stands at 107,442,251, down 1.5% from 2021.

For calendar 2017, IRI data show frozen meat alternative dollar sales were $486,522,159 and unit sales were 76,353,088. The growth over the past five years is attributable to more companies entering the category and innovation that has created more choices and improved quality, including plant-based meat, poultry and seafood.

Where the angst has been greatest is around the market for refrigerated plant-based meat alternatives, some of which are sold in the fresh meat cases of retailers. For the 52 weeks ended Oct. 2 that category had dollar sales of $433,536,596 and unit sales of 52,812,042, down 10.8% and 11.6%, respectively, when compared to calendar 2021. But the category has shown steady growth over the past five years, up from dollar sales of $118,504,404 in calendar 2017 on unit sales of 19,305,931. Like frozen alternatives, the growth is attributable to more participants and greater selection.

While it is established that the market for plant-based meat alternatives is not new — it has simply expanded from the frozen food aisle into refrigerated coolers — what is new is the aspirations of newer market participants who have worked to make their product nearly indistinguishable in taste and texture from traditional meat selections, who have promised disruption and a wholesale shift in consumer eating patterns. Beyond Meat wants to play a central role in the transition from animal to plant-based meat. Impossible Foods’ goal is even more aspirational — “To drastically reduce humanity’s destructive impact on the global environment by completely replacing the use of animals as a food production technology.”

Investors tasted the products and believed the proclamations that plant-based meat alternatives may one day soon compete at scale with the conventional meat industry around the world. That day is not here and may not come for decades, if ever.

The downsizing taking place in the market for plant-based meat alternatives was predictable. Research shows the leading foods consumers eat is stubbornly consistent and change does not occur rapidly. For the time being, one may expect the market to continue its steady path. Ingredient innovations and growing consumer concerns about the impact of animal agriculture on the environment will be fuel for additional growth, but it will reflect the reality of the marketplace rather than the hype that has dominated the conversation during the past few years.