Plant-based meat sizzles as potentially juicy business

An Impossible Whopper offered by Burger King. The fast-food chain has been testing the vegetarian version of its Whopper since April.
An Impossible Whopper offered by Burger King. The fast-food chain has been testing the vegetarian version of its Whopper since April. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

NEW YORK • No longer at the food fringes, plant-based meats are selling well in supermarkets and emerging as a hot commodity for fast-food chains, industrial food companies as well as Wall Street investors.

JPMorgan Chase has estimated the market for plant-based meat could easily top US$100 billion (S$136 billion) in 15 years.

Barclays says the "alternative meat" market could account for around 10 per cent of all global meat sales, or up to US$140 billion, in 10 years.

Among big restaurant chains, Burger King has been testing since April a vegetarian version of its flagship Whopper. McDonald's has unveiled a meatless burger in Germany and KFC is studying non-meat options for its menu.

Alternatives to meat are not new, of course, but start-ups and other growing players in the business have taken advantage of newer technologies to simulate the taste and texture of authentic meat more comprehensively.

At the same time, more consumers are opting for plant-based products out of concern for the environment, animal welfare or for health reasons.

The best-known new ventures - Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat - have had difficulty at times meeting surging demand for their products, even as Wall Street has bet on their potential.

On its first day on Wall Street as a publicly traded company, Beyond Meat surged 163 per cent, finishing the session at US$65.75.

Since then, shares have more than doubled, ending last Friday's session at US$139.13, up a stunning 39.4 per cent after the company said it anticipates sales growth of 140 per cent.

Impossible Foods, whose Impossible Burger is sold in more than 7,000 restaurants in the United States and Asia, recently raised US$300 million in a financing round that valued the company at US$2 billion.

Among large food companies, Swiss giant Nestle in April launched its "Incredible Burger" in Europe. The burger is based on soya, wheat and extracts of beetroot and other plants.

In the fall, Nestle plans to offer a pea-based "Sweet Earth" veggie burger in the US.

Anglo-Dutch firm Unilever last year bought Vegetarian Butcher, which has said it aims to become the "largest butcher in the world" with plant-based meat.

US company Kellogg has been present in alternative meat since the 1970s through Morningstar Farms. While the brand has not enjoyed the same outsize gains of late as the newer players, it remains the biggest producer in the US.

Others active in the burgeoning business include Brazilian giant JBS, which is launching a vegetarian burger in its home market, and Tyson Foods, a one-time investor in Beyond Meat that is planning its own plant-based product.

Sales of alternative meat jumped 23 per cent last year in the US, according to The Food Institute.

Yet that accounts for just 1 per cent of the total market for meat, much lower than the 13 per cent of milk represented by non-dairy sources such as soya, almond and coconut.

In spite of the strong potential, analysts caution against losing sight of some uncertainties facing the industry. "There are risk factors to consider, such as alternative meat products being less healthy than claimed as a result of additives to appeal to customer taste," said the Barclays note.

Barclays also pointed to "potential regulatory restrictions" as far as marketing.

For example, farm groups have lobbied Washington to restrict the term "meat" to animal-based products. Also, there is always a risk that emerging stars in the business could be roiled by a recall, said JPMorgan.

And the impact of mistakes could be amplified by the growing presence of bigger and more diversified companies that are racing into the market. The conventional companies also have sophisticated supply chains and ready access to capital.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 10, 2019, with the headline Plant-based meat sizzles as potentially juicy business. Subscribe