Sustainability and supply chains of plant-based meat

Over the years, durability is increasingly adopted by consumers and brands. For many, this has caused them to reconsider the foods they eat. In recent years, the plant-based meat market has grown tremendously, with new entrants joining those that have been around for decades. The plant-based meat supply chain benefits from the setbacks of traditional food supply chains, especially during the Covid pandemic.

The plant-based meat market has been around since 1896, when Nuttose was started by Dr John Harvey Kellogg. Nuttose was the world’s first canned meat substitute and was made primarily from peanuts. When most people think of plant-based meat substitutes, the first names that come to mind are usually Morning Star and Boca, the makers of fake meat burgers, sausage, and chicken patties. Over the past five years, the number of entrants into the market has increased as companies seek to make their plant-based meat substitutes “meatier”.

Beyond Meat was granted a patent in December 2016 for a process for producing a “Nutrient-Rich Meat Structured Protein Product”. This process creates a more “meat-like” look and feel, ensuring even a juicy, pink center when the burger is cooked. Impossible Foods has obtained its own patent for a ground beef-like product that promises a similar result. I ate a Beyond Meat burger and was not impressed. My colleague Chris Cunnane ate products from both of these companies and his feeling was that while the burgers were pretty tasty, the sausages are fantastic. It is true that these products have a texture similar to meat when eaten. Even the big packers and producers of meat began to explore the production of plant-based meat substitutes.

There is also a meat-like product that is not based on animal slaughter or a plant-based alternative. Memphis Meats was granted a patent earlier this year for a in vitro cultured meat production method. This essentially means that the meat is grown in the lab and does not include the participation of animals.

All of these new entrants to the market, along with the continued acceptance and willingness of the public to buy these products, mean a lot of money. According to a market report from Allied Research, the global meat substitutes market was valued at $ 4.1 billion in 2017 and is expected to grow to over $ 8 billion by 2026. Another forecast is more optimistic – they see a market for plant-based protein and lab-created meat substitutes that could be worth up to $ 85 billion by 2030.

The plant-based meat supply chain

The supply chain for plant-based meat is interesting. From a high level, the supply chain of meat alternatives is shorter and much more compact than the meat supply chain. For example, companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods can produce about 1 million pounds of meat substitutes on about 68,000 square feet. Compared to the amount of space it takes to produce 1 million pounds of commercially farmed meat, the numbers are staggering. For beef or calf cows, that same number would require over 6,500 acres of land; for pigs, it would take over 165 acres. And those numbers are in live weight – the weight of an animal before it is slaughtered and prepared.

In addition, there is much less water and human labor involved. Combine that with the fact that plant-based meat substitutes can hit the market much faster than traditional meat. The labor factor can make a big difference. When the Covid pandemic first struck, many meat packing plants were closed due to infection. The closures in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, resulted in a 36 percent decrease in pig and cow slaughter.

However, the plant-based meat supply chain also presents some challenges. As new entrants have entered the market, the FDA has only recently approved some of their products. The main concern is food safety and traceability. For different foods there are different regulations, from temperature controls to how and how long the product is stored. With new alternatives to meat hitting the market, regulators are still sorting out some of these finer points. The biggest piece of the puzzle here is figuring out which safety protocols need to be in place, as the new products combine different herbal ingredients.

Final thought

The vegetable meat market is clearly heating up. The Covid pandemic has helped push the market to new heights, as in the first months of the Great Lockdown, sales of alternative meat products in grocery stores increased by 264%. The closures of processing plants pushed prices up and supplies down.

Meat substitutes took advantage of this opportunity. And now, as we head into the final quarter of 2021, plant-based meat has found its way onto restaurant menus nationwide, including nationwide rollouts at Burger King, A&W, Blaze Pizza, Carl’s Jr, Del Taco, Denny’s and Shake Shack

to name a few. As demand continues to grow, the plant-based meat supply chain will continue to evolve.

The lead author of this article was Chris Cunnane, Research Director for Supply Chain Management at the ARC Advisory Group.

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Rene M. Ladner

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