Let’s stop pretending why people get excited about alt-meat introductions. The reason is pretty simple: Consumers are convinced they can save the planet just by (slightly) changing their diets.
As it states at the conclusion of these commentaries (for those who occasionally make it to the end), the following thoughts are not factual … merely my own opinion.
But I would argue, admittedly without a whole lot of modesty, that over the past close-to four decades-, I’ve been right a lot more than I’ve been wrong about industry trends, the dynamics of new product marketing and the activist campaigns that denigrate both.
So here’s an assertion that’s buttressed only by my own credibility — such as it is. But consider the following statement and tell me I’m not wrong:
“If it weren’t for the alt-meat category’s perceived impact on environmental concerns, there would be little if any momentum for the marketing and consumption of all these analogs masquerading as real beef, pork and chicken.”
To fully grasp this argument, flip that coin over.
If the public were convinced that animal agriculture — the breeding, feeding and processing of livestock for food products — had a positive or even neutral impact on such concerns as land use, resource conservation, energy usage and protection of water sources, why would they be motivated to choose products that cost more and don’t taste as good as the authentic ones they’re designed to replace?
Why would anyone pay more money for products whose claim to fame is that they come close to mimicking the original?
Answer: They wouldn’t.
The real reason the alt-meat category has generated such white-hot media attention, if not nearly as much trial as its manufacturers would have us believe, is because the category’s been positioned as a solution to existential threats, such as climate change and species extinction, that activists have cleverly managed to connect to livestock production.
Too processed, too pricey
And now there is somebody agrees with me, someone with far more clout than me: Brian Niccol, the CEO of Chipotle Foods.
“I’m not sure plant-based foods that look and taste like meat are a long-term trend,” Niccol told Barron’s in a story posted to CNBC.com. He agreed that a percentage of consumers will shift to more plant alternatives, but noted that “It’s still a small group that is 100% vegan [or] 100% vegetarian.”
He got that right, and not to denigrate anyone who’s genuinely committed to avoiding animal foods because of their sincerely held beliefs, but for all the talk of nutritional benefits and animal welfare and the (alleged) joy of living off of processed plant protein, if consumers didn’t believe they’re helping save the planet by switching to all these factory-fresh shamburgers, the alt-meat category would be but a mere curiosity destined — at best — to occupy a small and lightly regarded niche in the panoply of specialty foods marketed to narrowly defined demographics.
Not only that, but given the sophisticated processing and refined ingredients necessary to create faux foods, Niccol added that a meat alternative derived from pea protein might be intended to look like and taste like meat, but ultimately it’s “too processed” to fit with Chipotle’s branding.
On is website, Chipotle emphasizes that its mission involves “sourcing pork from pigs allowed to freely root and roam outdoors … because we understand the connection between how food is raised and prepared and how it tastes. We do it for farmers, for animals and for the environment.”
Take away the words “pork” and “pigs” and that statement captures almost perfectly the mindset of the alt-meat manufacturers’ core constituency.
They don’t choose these foods because the taste is so much better — it’s not; they don’t decide that their superior culinary quality makes them worth the premium price — they’re not; and they don’t feel good about eating processed plant protein because it’s some sort of super food — it isn’t.
Virtually without exception, the consumers who are willing to purchase alt-meat products do so because they’re convinced that they’re helping to protect the environment, perhaps even save the entire planet, from the ravages of the world’s cattle herds.
And in the not-too-distant future, when it becomes obvious that merely manufacturing plant-based analogs in lieu of meat, poultry and dairy foods isn’t going to reverse any of this century’s troubling environmental threats — resource scarcity, rainforest destruction, species extinction, climate-caused crises — that attraction will wane.
At which point, the alt-meat category will simply remain what it currently is: A nice, fairly tasty, somewhat pricey yet equally convenient alternative to the animal foods humanity has historically consumed and will continue to do so for as long as people and animals populate the world.
The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, an award-winning journalist and commentator.