Big Food and Plant-Based Protein: Potential MEATing of the Minds?
Capitalizing on an increasingly health and environmentally conscious era, plant-based meat substitute companies are positioning themselves as the future of protein. On May 2, 2019, Beyond Meat became the first plant-based product company to go public. Its stock skyrocketed to become the highest performing first-day public offering in nearly two decades. Impossible Foods is also performing well. While the company is in no rush to go public, they just secured $300 million in their latest funding round.
In light of these recent successes, the meat industry is grappling with how to address the new food phenomenon. With the long-term viability of the alternative meat market yet to be seen, traditional meat companies are taking both an offensive and defensive approach.
Many Big Food companies view cell-based meat as an opportunity rather than a liability. Taking the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach, these companies are integrating plant-based protein investments into their own portfolio. For example, Tyson was an early investor in Beyond Meat. Tyson recently sold its 6.52% stake in the company, but Tyson is still fully committed to competing in the plant-based protein space. Tyson announced that it plans to launch an “alternative protein product” with market testing as early as this summer. The fact that Tyson is a household name synonymous with meat could impede its ability to build brand loyalty in the alternative meat space. That said, the producer’s well-established distribution networks and manufacturing facilities will enable them to hit the ground running—an advantage that start-up companies in the emerging market necessarily lack.
Simultaneously, however, the meat industry is taking active measures to hedge against what, on its face, appears to be an impending threat of market erosion.
The meat industry is also lobbying for laws banning any non-slaughterhouse-derived protein product from being labeled “meat.” Last year, Missouri was the first state to formally do so. Lawmakers in 17 states—including Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming—have followed suit. Laws in Montana, Georgia, Nebraska, and Oklahoma are also on the horizon.
Legislators and meat industry lobbyists are touting these laws as necessary consumer protection measures. Not surprisingly, proponents of plant-based meat disagree and are fighting back against legislation they say is aimed to protect cattle and livestock producers’ bottom line. Tofurkey, the Good Food Institute, the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, and the Animal Legal Defense Fund are challenging the Missouri law on constitutional grounds. Jessica Almy, director of policy for the Good Food Institute believes that the appeal should put other states on notice “that there are significant constitutional problems with these laws” because labeling is a form of “commercial speech, which is protected as long as it’s truthful.” The constitutional issue has yet to be resolved.
If Big Food is on board as a champion of plant-based protein rather than an opponent, the future for the protein industry certainly looks bright. But, it appears—at least for the time being—that meat alternative companies will have their work cut out for them as they navigate a newly developing (and often times conflicting) patchwork of state laws designed to stifle their marketing efforts. These uncertainties will continue to trigger disputes about what producers (that often operate in multiple states) can say about their products without misleading consumers, and just how far states can go to regulate commercial speech.