Plant-based meat sales have dipped, leaving analysts divided over the future of the sector. Researchers warn that the novelty of vegan meat is wearing off, and that consumers are “overwhelmed” by too many options. But not everyone is in agreement; some insist meat-free food is here to stay.
The vegan food category has steadily accelerated in recent years. In 2020, the US plant-based meat sector crossed the billion-dollar mark when it skyrocketed by 45 percent – jumping from $962 million in 2019, to $1.4 billion in 2020.
The category even outpaced animal-based meat last year in the US, with the vegan meat market growing twice as quickly.
But in the four weeks to October 3, 2021, sales of plant-based meat dropped by 1.8 percent compared to the year before. That’s according to retail data organization SPINS, which added that vegan meat sales have now declined by 0.6 percent this year.
Michael McCain is president and chief executive at Maple Leaf Foods, a Canadian packaged meats company. Maple Leaf has a vision of becoming the “most sustainable protein company on Earth,” according to its website, and owns plant-based protein brand Green Leaf.
“In the past six months, unexpectedly, there has been a rapid deceleration in the category growth rates of plant-based protein,” McCain told market analysts earlier this month.
Meanwhile, Maple Leaf’s animal-based meat sales surpassed expectations.
The novelty effect
Gary Stibel, founder and CEO of The New England Consulting Group, is unsurprised, telling Food Dive he has anticipated the drop for two years.
“It was just a matter of predicting the novelty curve,” Stibel said. “When a product like this comes into the marketplace, it will attract an unusual number of curious … triers. And if the product doesn’t meet demand, doesn’t satisfy the consumer, they will say, ‘Hey, that was interesting,’ and they won’t come back and buy it again.”
He believes companies and investors alike “got caught up in the emotion and not the economics.”
Stibel added that consumer research highlighting consumer attitudes to plant-based products have been misleading. He argues that such research only assesses what people say they want to do (i.e. eat more sustainably, become healthier), not what they actually do in the supermarket aisle.
“At the end of the day, they painted by the numbers by doing what research said rather than observing what people did,” he concluded.
Spoiled for choice
Contrary to previous research, too many vegan meat choices could also deter consumers.
The growing ubiquity of vegan meat has left some consumers “overwhelmed” by the number of options, the Financial Times reported.
Corey Chafin, associate partner in the consumer practice of consulting firm Kearney, referred to the launch of private-label vegan products as a “tsunami wave.”
New England Consulting Group’s Stibel echoed the sentiments. “The category will never be big enough to support all of the players who are attempting to participate in it,” he said.
But in some settings, plenty of options are helping growth. In Australia, the increasing variety of plant-based options is a leading reason that consumers are ditching meat.
Meanwhile, other research suggests that more options could help the cause, with a significant number of consumers identifying lack of options as a chief barrier to meat-free eating.
The future of plant-based food
Many experts stand by the movement, insisting that the plant-based meat market has not reached its peak.
“I think that a lot of consumers just don’t have a lot of the facts about all the stressors that the meat industry has for the environment, and I think that educating them will really go a long way because consumers, and especially the younger generations, are really pretty concerned about the health of the environment,” Rebecca Scheuneman, an equity analyst at Morningstar, told Food Dive.
Corey Chafin, associate partner in consumer practice at Kearney, has similar thoughts.
Cafin said to the publication, “There’s so much momentum in this category that it’s hard to foresee anything that would be massively disruptive to the growth.”