The one alt-meat message more compelling than the ‘Save the planet!’ mantra marketed to consumers is one directed at food-industry executives and investors: Let’s make some money!
As the second decade of the 21st century comes closer to completion, the biggest question looming over the animal agriculture sector is pretty straightforward: How will the emergence of the alt-meat sector ultimately impact livestock producers, meat and poultry processors and the retail and foodservice industries?
Will the so-called vegan revolution put ranchers and producers out of business? Will steakhouse restaurant chains have to reinvent their menus? Will millions more Americans adopt vegetarian diets? And even if the most optimistic projections about some vegetarian tsunami are only partially accurate, how will changes in dietary choices impact American agriculture and national food security concerns?
On one hand, the most outspoken veganistas love to pretend that consumers will be driven by their consciences, and that vegan lifestyle will someday dominate the dietary landscape, as a result of the public’s concerns about environmental protection and animal welfare.
I think not. While there is undoubtedly some momentum among certain demographics to embrace vegetarian food choices, projections of a wholesale conversion of the American diet away from meat and dairy and toward plant-based alternatives are vastly overstated.
As is true with most consumer trends, the dynamics of the alt-meat sector are driven by shrewd marketing and advertising, not by marketplace demand. Yes, millions of people are “interested” in alt-meat foods, but without the kind of sophisticated marketing that accompanies the promotion of every innovative food category, there would be no mass movement toward the adoption of vegan products.
Not at the current prices for such products, anyway.
Alt-meat’s real goals
As is true with every other food industry sector, alt-meat’s driving dynamic isn’t people, it’s profits.
In fact, a recent online post on Bloomberg Businessweek made it abundantly clear that the entrepreneurs the media love to lionize as noble, virtuous proponents of a wonderfully positive transition of people’s food choices are, in fact, cut from the same “the-bottom-line-is-the-bottom-line” cloth as their capitalist brethren in any other industry you care to name.
The article, titled, “Vegetarians at the Gate,” featured a quote from Chris Kerr, the co-founder and chief investment officer of New Crop Capital, a New York-based venture firm with stakes in 33 vegan food companies, including Good Catch, meal-kit producer Purple Carrot and alt-meat manufacturer Beyond Meat.
According to Bloomberg, Kerr has become “an ubiquitous tastemaker,” funding promising entrepreneurs, attracting investors and “matchmaking startups with food giants such as Cargill Inc. and Maple Leaf Foods Inc. that are determined to hedge against declines in meat consumption.”
At a special product demo/tasting event in Silicon Valley for tech sector and foodservice executives — including Maisie Ganzler, the head of strategy for Bon Appétit Management Co., a subsidiary of foodservice purveyor Compass Group Plc, which services Apple, Facebook and Google, Bloomberg noted — Kerr made his pitch.
“The vegan revolution is here,” he said, “and there are fortunes to be made.”
Kind of sums it up as far as the motivations of the alt-meat entrepreneurs, don’t you think?
Even as the proponents of various plant-based food categories tout their deep concerns about the treatment of livestock, coupled with an abiding love of Nature, the money behind those start-ups is singing the same old capitalist song about moving the merchandising and banking big bucks in the process.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
But let’s be honest: The excitement generated by alt-meat R&D and the subsequent marketing of the sector’s new products, which the media’s lapped up like a hungry cat with a bowl of cream, is the creation of marketing teams tasked with successfully launching products to generate sales and profits — just like old-school, old-fashioned meat and poultry companies have been doing for centuries.
In the same vein that organic trade groups conflate sales of all organically certified products (cosmetics, clothing, even alcohol) with organic foods sales, Bloomberg noted that market researcher Nielsen calculated that “overall sales of vegan items” in the United States rose 20% over the 12 months from mid-2017 to mid-2018, reaching a total of $3.3 billion.
How much of that total represents vegan foods isn’t clear, but the mindset of the venture capitalists backing the alt-meat start-ups is, to quote Tom Cruise’s character in the movie A Few Good Men, “crystal.”
As VC honcho Kerr told the players at the Silicon Valley vegan showcase, “We will be rich, no matter what.”
Not hearing a lot of angst over animal welfare or eco-protection in that statement.
But for much of the alt-meat sector, those concerns are like the holiday carols playing in every retail store from Halloween through Christmas:
The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.