The plant-based meat industry has grown rapidly over the past few years, but public perception is one of the biggest obstacles to more expansion.
Billion dollars companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are giving consumers other choices besides meat. Even Burger King is offering a vegan Whopper. Experts say the growth isn’t coming from vegetarians or vegans but from meat eaters occasionally choosing meat alternatives when shopping or eating out.
“Somebody who still is open to consuming meat products, so beef, pork, chicken and the like, but maybe not with every meal,” says Glynn Tonsor, an agricultural economics professor at Kansas State University.
Grocery store sales of refrigerated meat alternatives have increased more than 100% and frozen products 40% in May 2020 compared to the same time in 2019, says Jayson Lusk, an agricultural economist at Purdue University.
“That is because it's starting from a very small base,” Lusk says. “So you get big percentage increases when you start from an initial small number.”
One thing is clear, though, Lusk says: the industry is growing. In Oklahoma, a vegan food truck is hoping to overcome the stigma that mock meat won’t have the same texture or taste.
‘Trust us, it’s vegan’
It’s no secret Oklahoma is beef country. The state has spent $60 million from the coronavirus relief package to help expand meat processing. Oklahoma lawmakers enacted a law to help promote ranchers who raise and slaughter their cattle in the state.
That hasn’t stopped Gwyneth Yvonne and Randon Moore from starting a vegan food truck in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
“Gwen and I like to say, ‘We’re changing cattle country, one vegan meal at a time,’” Moore says.
Their business, called The BeetBox, started from their apartment when the duo were students at Northwestern Oklahoma University. Other students lined up outside the apartment waiting for chickenless sandwiches and fries loaded with vegan cheese, vegan bacon and jalapeños, Yvonne says. At first, they didn’t tell them the sandwiches were vegan.
“I think that's what surprises people the most, is our chicken, because people don't think it's vegan at first until we try to convince them, like, ‘trust us, it's vegan,’” Yvonne says. “That's when we knew we had something special, and we knew we had to take it to the next level and open a food truck together.”
Taste barriers for entry
The alternative meat industry is growing, but beef is still the big winner. Shoppers chose beef about three times as often as all meat alternatives, according to a study from Kansas State University and Purdue.
Part of that is likely the price. Ingredients like the pea proteins in Beyond Meat burgers are expensive and drive up the price, Lusk says. But the biggest barrier is consumer preferences, he says. Meat still has a good reputation.
“Consumers’ perceptions of traditional beef are very positive and generally more positive than the plant based alternatives in terms of things like taste,” Lusk says.
The owners of BeetBox say a majority of their customers aren’t vegan. Mike and Christie Leal picked up chickenless nachos from the truck outside Stonecloud Brewery in Oklahoma City.
“I love a great steak, you know. Sirloin is just wonderful,” Mike Leal says. “So when you talk about plant-based foods, my first impression would be how good will it be if you compare it to a good steak?”
The Leals were surprised by how much they liked the chickenless nachos, which are made out of jackfruit. Christie Leal says in the past, texture was the biggest factor for why she chose meat over vegan alternatives.
“It's actually pretty good. The texture is very similar. The flavor is similar. So maybe it is going somewhere now,” Christie Leal says.
Scott Blubaugh, the president of the Oklahoma Farmers Union, says the plant-based meat industry could become a competitor for beef and pork.
“When you look at some of the, say, almond milk or some of the other substances that really aren't milk at all, they really competed against our dairy farmers,” Blubaugh says.
Laws in Oklahoma and other states require meat alternatives to be clearly labeled as plant-based to avoid confusion. Many of those laws have been challenged in court for violating the First Amendment’s free speech clause.
Although Blubaugh maintains these types of laws are important to protecting the consumers and the meat industry, researchers like Lusk and Tonsor say these meat substitutes won’t outsell beef, pork and poultry anytime soon.
Entrepreneurs like Moore and Yvonne believe more people will start to include meat alternatives in their diets, and they are dreaming big.
“A lot of people ask us how big do you want to get? We usually say, ‘Have you heard of Amazon?’ So that's our goal,” Moore says.