Health & Diet

Meat eaters get curious about alternative proteins

A new research report published by AHDB puts some interesting figures on the rise in popularity of new plant-based meat alternatives.

While 91% of British households buy meat and 81% of people regard themselves as meat eaters, many are choosing to cut down rather than cut out their consumption of meat. It’s this trend towards meat reduction rather than a switch to vegetarianism that the industry should take note of; especially as half of meat alternative sales come from meat eaters.

Another strong reason for the meat industry to sit up and take note are the reasons that people give for their change in diet. Health, environment and animal welfare are all strong drivers.

Figures just released by Marlow Foods (the company behind Quorn and Cauldron Foods) show that their turnover grew 16.2% last year to over £200m with the bulk of their sales happening in the UK.

Beyond consumer attitudes, the alternative meat sector is attracting high levels of investment, which is fuelling development of technology and growth. Big money is now being invested not just by a new breed of food company but by very established meat-based businesses like Tyson Foods, America’s largest processor of beef, pork and poultry.  They are seeing a growing demand, not just from changing western dietary preferences, but from a growing global population and the pressure this puts on the supply of animal proteins.

Another strong reason for the meat industry to sit up and take note are the reasons that people give for their change in diet.

Tom Hayes, Tyson’s Chief Executive, was quoted as saying: “It’s a tough situation, but I’m not going to lead a company that is going to have a ‘Kodak moment’”. He said “we owe it to our shareholders and we owe it to ourselves” to adapt to changes in the industry.

The partnership between Tyson and Future Meat Technologies will speed up development to bring down the per kilo production cost of their new cell-cultured meat but will also fast track the ability to integrate it into standard supply chains.

That said, take up of meat alternatives still has to clear some major hurdles among consumers who will need to be convinced by the products. Indeed AHDB’s survey found that 55% of respondents found the idea of lab-grown meat either ‘somewhat’ or ‘very unappealing’.

What does this mean for the British meat industry?

While the UK public is one of the least likely to switch protein sources, AHDB’s report warns that this could be the start of ‘more lasting disruption’ to the market. But they also highlight the need for clear consumer information on the various health and environmental impacts of eating meat.

Consumers’ views on what constitutes healthy eating and the environmental impact of meat production are being shaped by the most prominent voices in the media. However, the information is often incomplete or misleading.

Unsurprisingly, what’s needed is clear, quantifiable evidence to support health and environmental claims to prevent meat from being unfairly judged and also to help people make more informed choices. As an example, the public knows very little of the energy and water usage that would be necessary to produce lab-grown meat at scale. Nor are they aware of the level of waste and by-product that would be produced.

The opportunities lie in building the meat brand to be synonymous with natural quality, provenance and a superior taste. Clear information about the comparative merits (health and environmental) also need to be publicised so people can understand better the impacts involved. But, say AHDB, opportunities also lie in diversification into plant-based or hybrid products to cater to an increasingly ‘flexitarian’ consumer demand.

It’s this potential for diversification that meat businesses are now exploring. While it’s very difficult to predict how this current trend towards eating less meat will pan-out over the next decade and beyond, innovative businesses are already exploring ways to evolve their product ranges to capture a bigger share of the flexitarian market.

If we do see a more ‘lasting disruption’ caused by changing dietary habits, or government intervention, those same companies will be well positioned to continue catering to a new generation of consumers and expanding into new markets with a diversified product range.

One thing is certain, we will be discussing the meat industry’s response to this emerging trend for some time to come. And, BMPA will be working to make sense of changes to the market and help members meet any challenges head on.

About the author

Anna Barnes specialises in strategic communications consultancy for member associations and trade bodies across multiple sectors as a partner at Ooda. Part of her remit is to get under the surface of complex and technical industry issues and distil them into clear communications that builds influence and profile for her clients. She has worked with BMPA since 2017.