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By: Gordon Chan

Plant-based meat sounds like an oxymoron. By definition, meat is animal flesh that is eaten as food. So, what exactly are plant-based meats made of?

As their name suggests, plant-based meats are meat alternatives that use plant-based ingredients instead of animal meat. Their ingredient list can include water, pea protein isolate, rice protein, soy protein concentrate, potato protein, and heme. They are designed and created to have the same texture, flavor, and appearance as conventional animal meat products. Some products, like the Impossible Burger, even “bleed” when you cut it.

Since 2017, the dollar sales of plant-based meat has increased over 38%, according to market research by The Good Food Institute. Today, the plant-based meat market is estimated to be worth $939 million.

Plant-based meat dollar sales over 104 weeks ending Dec 29 2019
Source: SPINScan Natural and Specialty Gourmet

The growth of the plant-based meats industry seems to be continuously expanding with increasing demand for meat alternatives from the general public. Even Tyson Foods, the largest meat processing company in the U.S., has a foot in the plant-based meat industry with their own line of “Raised & Root” plant-based meat products. But even the $42 billion meat giant has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted interest in meat production practices and the role that factory farms play in spreading infectious diseases. At least 4,585 Tyson workers in 15 states have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and 18 have died. Despite implementing new safety measures to protect workers, including taking temperatures, requiring face masks, and daily deep cleanings, Tyson has temporality closed several of its plants across the U.S. This has contributed to the shortage of meat supplies across the U.S, with meat production estimated to be 40% below 2019 levels.

Tyson employee walking through a temperature scanner
Source: Food Safety Strategies

The unprecedented shocks to meat production and supply chains have caused significant changes to retail meat prices. The price of wholesale beef prices increased 100% in May while wholesale pork prices increased 50%, according to USDA meat data sets. With limited supplies and subsequent price increases of most meats, consumers are gravitating to plant-based meat alternatives during this ongoing pandemic. 

The International Food Information Council, a nonprofit educational organization focused on nutrition, food safety, and agriculture, released a survey detailing the shift in plant-based meat consumption in the wake of COVID-19. About a quarter of consumers reported eating more plant-based meats since the pandemic, while 31 percent of consumers admitted they would never eat plant-based alternatives.

There are likely many factors involved with the increased interest in plant-based meats, including higher prices and public health awareness. The increase in price has placed an extra burden for those whose income have fallen due to COVID-19. Many people left unemployed will have to re-evaluate their spending habits and ration food as a result of the pandemic. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) predicts that 235 million people will need financial assistance in 2021. They estimate that over $35 billion would be needed to help those in need.

Additionally, COVID-19 has highlighted the connection between public health and animal meat production. Consumers are using the pandemic to demand greater transparency about how their meat is produced and to call for more humane working conditions in processing sites. A new federal bill, the Safe Line Speeds in COVID-19 Act, seeks to stop high-speed animal slaughter and meat processing during COVID-19. The high line speeds in meat processing and slaughter facilities prevents social distancing during the pandemic and threatens the safety of workers. Since mid-March, over 32,000 workers at slaughterhouses and processing plants have tested positive for COVID-19, and over 120 workers have died from the virus.

Meat and poultry processing workers during COVID-19
Source: Business Insider

Due to the pandemic-driven disruptions to animal meat supply chains, sales and interest in plant-based meats have skyrocketed. Grocery store sales of plant-based meat alternatives rose 264 percent during a nine week period ending on May 2, faster than they were growing in the weeks before the pandemic, according to data from Nielsen.

Year over year percent change in refrigerated plant-based meat and conventional meat sales
Source: Nielson

Because plant-based meat production was not affected by the systemic shocks affecting animal-based meat production, plant-based meat companies were able to expand into grocery stores around the country. For example, Impossible Foods launched the Impossible Burger into 1,700 Kroger Stores nationwide during the pandemic.

The data is clear, 2020 has been a big year for the plant-based meat industry. Outbreaks of COVID-19 across U.S. processing plants has caused a kink to the animal meat supply chain, resulting in higher meat prices for consumers. In response, consumers are consuming more plant-based meat alternatives. And for the first time, plant-based meats are competitive in price, and sometimes even easier to find, than animal meat.

The meat industry’s trouble may have provided a boost to the plant-based meat industry, which has outperformed its prior-year sales and animal meat sales. However, it’s difficult to predict if this trend will continue after COVID-19.