The COVID-19 pandemic is exposing fractures across the industrial meat industry, including unjust working conditions and major supply chain vulnerabilities. As shoppers stocked their kitchens during the first wave of lockdowns, Nielsen data shows that they became more curious about plant-forward eating: from April 12 to May 9, vegan products saw a 53-percent increase in sales versus 34-percent for meat.
“Consumers are seeing that plant-based has come a long way from where it used to be,” Dan Curtin, President of Greenleaf Foods and owner of Lightlife Foods and Field Roast Grain Meat Co., tells Food Tank. “This whole situation has allowed consumers to recognize there are options out there, and they like what they’re hearing and seeing.”
Rising interest in plant-forward eating isn’t new: in 2019, The Good Food Institute and the Plant Based Foods Association reported that total plant-based retail sales grew at a rate almost five times faster than total U.S. retail food sales. Curtin was surprised, though, by the onslaught of consumer demand across retail this past spring. “We saw significant growth pre-pandemic, but we’re seeing explosive growth post-pandemic,” he says.
While there are no longer widespread meat shortages, plant-based sales are still up. Curtin expects this to sustain: “This is a trend, not a fad.”
Long-standing myths about plant-based protein—like that eaters will need to sacrifice taste or texture, that it will be more difficult to cook, or that it cannot deliver proper nutrition—are getting debunked this year as eaters become more comfortable experimenting at home. More options are coming to market, and those looking for the traditional experience of meat are able to find it in plant-based products.
“The old ways of a ‘veggie burger,’ while there’s an importance and need for that, isn’t what is bringing the flexitarian over [to plant-based eating],” Curtin tells Food Tank. Flexitarians, or semi-vegetarians, “want a product that’s recognizable.”
In a survey of 11,500 consumers released this year, Lightlife found that 90 percent of respondents that tried plant-based protein for the first time in the past year were flexitarians. “The vegans and the vegetarians are a great part of our platform, but the new users that are coming in are flexitarians,” Curtin notes.
This will impact how the food-service sector opens back up when eaters eventually return to restaurants and offices. According to Curtin, now that many eaters have tried and enjoyed different plant-based meals at home, they want to see these options on menus. Lightlife itself has seen an increase in foodservice requests for collaborations in recent months.
Meanwhile, plant-based competition continues to rise. Companies across sectors are releasing their own brands, such as McDonald’s recently announced meatless McPlant patty and Burger King’s partnership on the Impossible Whopper last year. “I think it’s awesome,” Curtin says. “Having competition in this category is great,” because it gives eaters more options to choose from.
As plant-based companies seek to differentiate, Lightlife is focused on using ingredients that are likely in eaters’ pantries already—coconut oil, canola oil, sea salt, various spices—never using synthetics or fillers, and making all of their products in the kitchen.
“Other companies out there are creating things in a lab and putting those products into theirs, but we don’t do that. That’s not the right thing to do,” Curtin tells Food Tank. “We’re a food company that uses technology, not a technology company that uses food.”
In August 2020, Lightlife directly challenged other players in the sector by announcing a “clean break” campaign, which promotes clean ingredients, simple processes, and carbon neutrality “while exposing competitors that are attempting to mimic meat at any cost.”
The plant-based competition isn’t going to slow down, and the meat industry isn’t going away, according to Curtin. But he doesn’t see this as a bad thing: “I don’t look at the meat industry as our enemy … This is not us versus them. This is about how we can do things together and allow better options and choices for consumers.”
Photo courtesy of Lightlife