They've been boosted by more at-home cooking, competitive beef prices, and shoppers' growing disgust at meat production.
Plant-based meat companies have become unexpected beneficiaries of the coronavirus pandemic. As meat processing facilities across the United States and Canada have closed due to virus outbreaks, companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are suddenly able to compete more closely with the price of real beef. This is something the companies have struggled to do since their creation, but this situation now poses a unique opportunity "to make more inroads with the consumers," as Beyond Meat's CEO Ethan Brown told the Financial Times.
In the past month, two of Canada's three biggest beef processing plants have closed, Tyson has shut down one beef and two pork plants in the U.S., and Smithfield has closed its huge pork plant in South Dakota. By the end of April, at least eight major facilities had stopped producing, leading to predictions of meat shortages in coming weeks, particularly once countries run through their frozen meat reserves.Meanwhile, plant-based meat companies are finding that business is booming better than ever. For Beyond Meat, whose products were mainly sold in retail locations, rather than restaurants, this looks particularly good. It reported a 141 percent increase in first-quarter sales compared to the year before and share prices have increased.
Impossible Foods, which sells its burgers more to restaurateurs than retailers, has announced a big expansion into 1,700 Kroger stores across the U.S. The Financial Times reported, "The agreement represented an 18-fold increase in its retail footprint this year. 'We are selling as much as we can possibly produce,' said Pat Brown, founder and chief executive. Impossible also cut its wholesale prices in March." The company has given permission to restaurants to sell its burgers directly to customers at whatever price they wish and is considering opening up ordering directly from its website. Impossible's chief communications officer, Rachel Konrad, told the Times,
"We have already seen a tremendous increase in retail demand in the 150 grocery stores that began selling the Impossible Burger last year. March was the #1 month ever for retail demand as people shift purchasing behavior from restaurants to groceries to cook at home."
Tofurky reports similar growth. The company CEO Jaime Athos said that it's ramping up production, "adding more shifts, running more lines and hiring... short term staff" in order to meet demand. While the surge is certainly linked to people stockpiling food for use at home, which won't last forever, Athos says that Tofurky fits people's needs perfectly right now: "Shoppers' purchase patterns right now seem to be focused on proteins and things that can be frozen or have considerable shelf lives, all things that Tofurky products offer."
Even though the growth is very much fuelled by immediate circumstances, the industry appears hopeful for its long-term future. In a discussion with Food Navigator, Impossible's Rachel Konrad suggested that people's disillusionment with the meat production system will drive them straight to the plant-based meat fridge at the store. People are beginning to wonder about the role animal agriculture plays in spreading sickness.
"COVID-19 appears to have infected human starting in the wet markets selling live animals in China; that's why China banned the consumption of wild animals in early March. Humans' reliance on animals for food is a public health disaster, responsible for a disproportionate number of viruses and pandemics – from the 1918 Spanish flu (from swine viruses) to the majority of human cases of influenza A (from live or dead infected poultry).
Eating animals imparts risk of zoonotic outbreaks, by bringing wild animals in close proximity to humans via markets or via deforestation, and by creating 'reservoirs' for pathogens in the form of domesticated livestock. Transitioning away from eating animal products is one of the best ways to reduce the likelihood of future animal to human spillovers."
Her assessment is logical. As more information comes out about the dirtiness of the meat industry – not only the conditions in which animals are raised for slaughter, but also how worker safety is compromised, allowing the virus to spread rampantly, and federal inspections are reduced in both number and thoroughness as processing lines speed up – people will seek out protein alternatives. With tighter food budgets and more time to experiment in the kitchen, more people will be willing to buy these products, to try something new – and they are unlikely to look back once they have.