Plants have successfully invaded the American supermarket meat section.
Alongside red Angus beef cuts, pork chops, and plump chicken breasts, grocery shoppers across the country will soon also find Beyond Meat’s plant-based burger patties, thanks to a deal the young food company inked with Safeway, a US grocery chain with more than 1,300 locations. The burgers will be in 280 of those stores starting tomorrow.
For Beyond Meat, the deal marks the first step toward its expansion into the mainstream market and represents an inflection point for a fast-growing industry looking to get a wave of new meat-alternative foods in front of consumers. By forging space in the meat section—and avoiding placement in a specialty-foods corner of the store—Beyond Meat hopes US meat eaters will consider its product synonymous with actual meat and consider giving it a shot.
“What Beyond Meat is doing is bigger than meat alternatives,” says Phil Lempert, the grocery-retailing expert who calls himself the Supermarket Guru. “They are opening the door for inviting consumers to think about food in an entirely different way.”
Whether consumers will take the bait remains to be seen, but the people at Beyond Meat and its rival, Impossible Foods, are optimistic they are about to hit a sweet spot in a market in which people are increasingly interested in meat and dairy alternatives. That interest is fueled, in part, by evidence that red meat contributes to health problems such as cancer, and that the humongous animal agriculture industry adversely impacts the planet, and has unfair labor practices (paywall).
It’s also perhaps a precursor of what’s to come in supermarket aisles once new cellular agriculture companies perfect lab-grown meats, which technically have the same cellular tissue and makeup of animal meat, but bypass the process in which the animals are raised, kept, and slaughtered. Just this past spring, Silicon Valley startup Memphis Meats said it had figured out how to grow chicken meat without ever involving a live bird.
Initially, the Beyond Meat patties will be available in Safeway grocery stores throughout Northern California, Nevada, and Hawaii. All told, it’s available in more than 600 grocery stores around the country, including in Whole Foods Market. That’s a huge move for the company, says Michele Simon, who heads the Plant Based Foods Association, a group that lobbies on behalf of such food companies.
“It’s one thing to have that opportunity in Whole Foods and it’s on a whole other level to have that opportunity in a Safeway,” Simon says. “For plant-based meats to truly go mainstream, there’s no question they have to be where mainstream consumers would expect to find them.”
And while some traditional meat groups are crying foul over the marketing terms upstart alternatives are using to reach consumers, others, including Tyson Foods—America’s biggest processor of meat—have embraced the idea that animal-free meat may be a part of the future. In October 2016, the company announced it had purchased a 5% stake in Beyond Meat for an undisclosed amount. Indeed, Tyson CEO Tom Hayes conceded to investors in March that plant-based proteins are not a fad:
Protein consumption is growing around the world—and it continues to grow. It’s not just hot in the US; it’s hot everywhere, people want protein, so whether it’s animal-based protein or plant-based protein, they have an appetite for it. Plant-based protein is growing almost, at this point, a little faster than animal-based, so I think the migration may continue in that direction.
As Lempert describes it, the paradigm is shifting—not just for eaters, but also for the places in which they get their food. “I think what we will start to see is the evolution of the meat case—having more products similar to Beyond Meat and morphing this whole supermarket experience,” he says. “I think we’re going to see much more blending.”