After one bite, I was pretty sure there had been a mistake. The veggie burger I’d ordered at a local restaurant — one of the new Impossible Burger offerings — didn’t taste right.
I haven’t eaten much beef in recent years, so I asked my wife, who took one bite and immediately answered “No that’s what you ordered.” But then she paused and wondered aloud, “But how did they make it taste so similar?”
With a veggie burger, you usually know what you’re getting. I tell people they shouldn’t even try to imagine it’s a burger substitute. But some of these new burgers, such as the offerings of privately held Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat BYND, -3.65% (which had one of the strongest IPO debuts in 20 years) really are heading into beef territory in terms of taste.
If you’re working for—or invested in—a meat processor or producer like Tyson Foods TSN, -0.75% or WH Group’s 288, +1.68% Smithfield Foods, you’re probably relieved that the taste isn’t quite there. But you should be worried about the conversations these meatless burgers are starting.
Since the earliest days of industrial meat production, beef producers’ goal has been to keep consumers from thinking about how their food is produced, for fear of making their customers a bit queasy. In recent years, however, consumers have been asking more and more about how their burgers are made. Climate-change debates have put traditional meat processors on the defensive and companies producing meat substitutes, from Quorn to the Impossible Burger to Beyond Meat, have made raising questions about traditional meat production—from greenhouse gas emissions to animal welfare—an important part of their marketing strategy.
If meat producers want to limit the market share they cede to meatless alternatives, they will have to respond with practices shown to reduce environmental and animal harms--like efficient rotational grazing or reduced reliance on feedlot production.
However, this will not be easy, as these measures have yet to be proven scalable and will almost certainly increase beef costs. This means that over time, consumers will either shift toward meatless alternatives or force traditional meat production to remake itself from the ground up. Either way, this poses one of the most fundamental challenges to the industry since the advent of industrial food.
Meat processors’ attempts to keep beef production invisible started during the late 19th-century, when markets for fresh beef went from regional to national, and soon, global. Diners in places like New York and Boston began to eat fresh meat from animals that had been born in Texas or Colorado and slaughtered in Chicago. That made people a bit uneasy. But the Chicago meatpacking houses that came to dominate this system had a weapon: price. Their meat was cheaper than locally processed options and tasted as good.
Still, customers remained somewhat suspicious. How could meat stay fresh as it traveled 1,000 miles from Chicago? Public fears reached a fever pitch with the 1906 publication of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” with its stories of rat feces and wastewater contaminating industrial meat. Soon there were calls for government action, and federal inspection followed.
Since then, consumers have cared little about the complaints of ranchers and traditional butchers that they were getting fleeced by an oligopoly that controlled most of the nation’s meat. There were some hiccups, most often around moments of food safety—who could forget the incidents of mad-cow disease, mostly in the U.K.?—but a compromise between consumers and industry has reigned: let’s not think too much about how it’s made.
This is where the rising popularity of meatless burgers and even lab-grown meat are changing the dynamics of the meat industry. Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, both of which are made from plant-based ingredients, stress their environmental benefits. Beyond Meat has a video on its website that explicitly talks about the problems of beef production. Beyond Meat’s prospectus further lists a “brand mission aligned with consumer trends” as a strength, specifically highlighting “public awareness” about the problems of producing traditional meat.
Lab-grown meats have a ways to go before commercial viability , but they, too, build their investor appeals around critiques of traditional beef.
U.S. consumers seem to be biting, and not just the 5% or so who call themselves vegans or vegetarians. An Ipsos survey of 2,010 U.S. adults found 49% of Americans are interested in plant-based meat, with that percentage at 67% for 18-to-34-year-olds. The numbers are even higher for “clean meat” (lab-grown). Personal health benefits are the most important factor according to survey participants, but more than 40% of respondents also highlighted animal welfare and “environmental benefits” as important factors.
Beyond Meat says its sales have surged to $87.9 million in 2018, from $16.2 million in 2016, admittedly still a small part of the U.S.’s $270 billion meat market, as it seeks to appeal to mainstream eaters.
While traditional beef will not be overtaken immediately, consumer interest is high enough to suggest these meat alternatives are going mainstream. Fast-food giant Restaurant Brands International QSR, +0.03% — the parent company of Burger King — has recognized this trend and will start selling the Impossible Whopper nationwide later this year, using a patty made by Impossible Brands.
Despite my enthusiasm for meatless burgers, my family is sticking with the real thing. For now.
As with consumers across America, there’s a lot of enthusiasm in my household for the forthcoming Impossible Whopper. If traditional meat producers can’t remake themselves, this once-niche food category is going to give them something serious to worry about.
Joshua Specht divides his time between Melbourne, Australia, where he teaches American history at Monash University, and South Bend, Indiana. He is the author of “Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-to-Table History of How Beef Changed America”. Follow him on Twitter @joshspecht.