At Alef Sausage, in the northern suburbs of Mundelein, owner Marina Mikhaylova makes sausages the old-fashioned Ukrainian way, using traditional ingredients such as beef and pork. As for vegetarian options, she says, “We don’t do anything plant-based. “People stopped buying it.”
The rise of meat alternatives has failed for multiple reasons. For starters, the marketing efforts behind some prominent brands failed to rebuke the carnivores among us, who far outnumber the vegans.
At the same time, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other red-meat-loving conservatives have joined big livestock producers alarmed by the environmental benefits of lab-grown products in calling them “fake meat” and pushing for new anti-meat products. competitive laws that prohibit them.
The long list of ingredients like pea protein and potato starch on some plant-based meat labels hasn’t helped either. Health-conscious consumers are steering away from any ultra-processed products these days.
Perhaps most importantly, the sausages that attracted so much attention a few years ago simply didn’t taste as good.
The result has been a sharp market correction. Beyond Meat’s stock price, which was trading in triple digits in 2021, has plummeted to just over $6 per share. Impossible Foods, which is not publicly traded, recently feuded with Bloomberg News over a disapproved story about the industry.
In Chicago last month, Archer Daniels Midland warned investors about accounting irregularities focused on its unit that provides soy protein and other ingredients to plant-based meat makers. Alarmed shareholders ran for the exits.
There is no doubt that the movement to replace meat with substitutes has run into headwinds. But stay tuned: We see better times ahead for an industry that is still in its infancy.
Consumers should keep an open mind as innovative new options appear in restaurants and supermarkets. Meat 2.0 is coming, and next-generation products have the potential to win over the same audience that tried Meat 1.0 and then understandably went back to asking for Big Macs.
As for politicians like DeSantis looking for easy targets to irritate their constituents, leave him alone. States don’t have to ban healthy products declared safe by federal watchdogs, and that includes lab-grown meats that have only just begun to reach consumers. Politicians must let the competitive market determine the winners and losers.
Despite leading a state that produces more meat than Florida, Illinois Governor JB Pritzker has taken a smarter approach than DeSantis. His administration actively recruited Upside Foods in northern suburban Glenview, congratulating it for being the first company to sell “cultured meat” in the United States, a brief foray presumably aimed more at gauging public reaction than making money. “Their pioneering leadership makes them the perfect choice for the region,” Pritzker stated.
Upside Foods’ new 187,000-square-foot factory is truly groundbreaking. It is expected to produce millions of pounds of ground chicken each year by growing meat directly from animal cells. The product is non-vegetarian and has similar qualities to any other ground chicken, but no birds are raised or slaughtered to produce it.
Ideally, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture would work together to advance this new industry. The current meat industry will most likely continue to fight tooth and nail against upstarts on labeling and other issues, pitting one regulator against another, which could slow growth.
Food industry experts such as David Lockwood of Lockwood Consulting describe the development of meat alternatives as an inexorable global trend. Although sales of conventional meat are expected to grow by double digits over the next decade, there will be demand for alternatives, Lockwood said. “The next few years don’t look very good, but the market continues to grow. “Small organizations are creating new things.”
At last month’s Fancy Food Show in Las Vegas, where Mundelein’s Alef Foods handed out sausage samples, Dominique Leach of Lexington Betty Smokehouse was handing out samples of her Chicago company’s line of Wagyu beef hot dogs. While her South Side barbecue restaurant serves meat, meat, and more meat, her menu also offers a vegetarian option, she noted. “Chicago seems to be embracing the plant-based scene. “You don’t want to turn people away.”
While Leach grilled his hot dogs, Prime Roots tested plant-based cured meats with a texture surprisingly similar to the savory products from Alef Foods and Lexington Betty. This 7-year-old company uses koji, an eco-friendly, mushroom-like ingredient, instead of the more common wheat or soy gluten. Last year, it received an additional $30 million in venture funding to expand into restaurants and deli counters nationwide.
“Many me-too products have not prioritized nutrition and flavor,” explained Kimberlie Le, co-founder of Prime Roots. “There is a new wave of plant-based products.”
The wave has come to a standstill for now. But if federal regulators do their job and hostile politicians stay out of the way, this promising industry should return to growth soon.