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Meat industry is not threatened by plant-based alternatives

A new study published in the journal Applied Economic Perspectives and Policies has found that, although the sales and market share of new plant-based meat alternatives have grown in recent years, these gains did not translate into reduced consumer spending on animal meat products. These findings suggest that plant-based meats are mostly an add-on to pork and beef, tending to serve as a substitute for chicken, turkey, or fish.

“We thought plant-based meat alternatives would be a potential replacement for red meat, but they’re not. It’s more of a complement,” said study co-author Wuyang Hu, a professor of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics at the Ohio State University. “People buy pork and beef, and at the same time they also buy plant-based meats.”

“This new generation of plant-based meat, by mimicking the taste and sensory experience of eating real meat, appeals to consumers who are not only vegetarian but also people who are curious about plant-based meat and even meat eaters,” added study lead author Shuoli Zhao, an assistant professor of Agricultural Economics at the University of Kentucky.

By investigating data on fresh meat expenditures – including plant-based meat products – at various types of stores across the United States between January 2017 and July 2020, the researchers found that plant-based meat alternatives accounted for only 0.1 percent of average total expenditures on fresh meat during this period (although during the study period the market share increased four-fold, to 0.4 percent). Beef topped the fresh meat sales (46 percent) and was followed by chicken (23 percent), pork, fish (12 percent each), and turkey and other meats (less than five percent).

Purchases of plant-based alternatives tended to increase when the products were on sale or during promotions. According to Professor Hu, this suggests that such alternatives are “more of an impulse buy and not a weekly purchase. We concluded it’s novelty-seeking. Consumers are pack followers. When they see a trend they say, ‘I should try this’ and form similar preferences.”

“We hypothesized that from a plant-based meat alternative company perspective, what they are trying to do is replace people’s diet of beef and pork. We actually found the opposite is the case,” added Professor Zhao. “Consumers are buying plant-based meat alternatives on top of planned expenditures on fresh meat, or are triggered by a promotion or the layout of the retail environment – which is an indication this is not currently a real threat to the fresh meat industry.

“Our findings suggest that besides marketing, plant-based protein companies should focus their R&D on providing products that meet consumers’ expectations – and then people will make their own choices about whether meat alternatives will become a staple in their diet,” he concluded.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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