Ten years ago, Lady Gaga’s choice of fashion at the Video Music Awards, literally a raw meat “dress,” was all over the news. I’ve learned from my sister-in-law, a professional fashionista, that what is worn on the red carpet does not translate into what is worn on Main Street. I had always wondered about the crazy stuff you see models wearing in magazines, so I asked her, “Who would wear that crazy stuff anyway?” She explained that what you see on the runway that is crazy expensive and crazy looking is what the fashion designers use to set off the seasonal trends for the year. The main street designers just take elements of those designs and incorporate them into what “real” people will buy and wear this coming fall. So needless to say, when I saw Gaga’s raw, flank steak dress and read it was in fact not a statement in protest of the meat industry, I didn’t get my hopes up that this was a new market for our beef sales!
Red meat is again on the runway, but not in the same way. We are seeing imposters trotted out every couple of months. We are living in a time when food is treated as an experience and becomes an avenue to express one’s politics, religion, economic standing and opinions of social responsibility. Contrast Gaga’s extravagant raw meat fashion statement with when Memphis Meats made its 2016 global rollout of its cell-based, meatball lab creations at $18,000 per pound. Although they have big investors from Gates to Tyson Foods, they are a long way from disrupting the traditional livestock industry and entering the mainstream. Who would eat that creepy stuff anyway?
The question President Smallhouse poses: From Lady Gaga’s Meat Dress in 2010 to today’s Impossible Burger, the question among livestock producers is whether this is just a trendy, short-lived fad on the food runway, or will peas, soybeans, beets and potatoes be as disruptive to the demand curve for beef and poultry as almonds and soy were to dairy products?
Fast forward to 2019 and now we are seeing a spinoff of sorts in plant protein alternative products paraded out month to month. Kentucky Fried Chicken recently partnered with Beyond Meat and debuted a plant-based fried chicken, while the Impossible Burger is selling out everywhere from Burger King to high-end restaurants. Del Taco sold 2 million of its meatless tacos 2 months after the launch, and they now have meatless burritos. There are so many new food products in the plant-based protein line that a new trade association, Plant Based Foods Association, is boasting the market has grown 11% over the past year and the total plant-based market value is $4.5 billion.
The plant-based Impossible Burger is the sexy new fashion line for what was once known as the humble Veggie Burger when I was growing up. The difference is that a veggie burger tastes and feels like a dry loofah sponge and these new products are meant to feel, taste and look like meat. I believe the “ick” factor and price point associated with lab meat will be of little consequence given that the efforts to affect a paradigm shift in the American diet has already begun with plants. The Veggie Burger was meant to appeal to vegans and niche markets, while these new plant-based meat alternatives are meant to appeal to a much broader audience for reasons which go beyond animal rights but focus on the environment and nutrition. According to Nestle, the world’s largest food company, 87% of Americans, both vegans and meat-eaters are incorporating plant-based protein into their diets, with two-thirds of them doing so one or more times a week. Marketing for these products is not about turning the world into vegans, which would be improbable, it’s about subtly changing the way people think about food production and how their lunch choices might impact the environment.
As with other gimmicks we have seen in the grocery aisle to sell products through misleading labels, food companies will likely use similar tactics to promote all these new products. Packaging might appeal to those perpetuated myths about “factory farming” and the “carbon footprint.” History tells us that as competition increases among food giants like Nestle, Tyson, Con Agra, Kellogg, Hormel and Kroger affordability will not limit the market share.
The beef burger still morphs the plant burger by 6.4 billion to 228 million sold, but many predict traditional beef demand will be cut in half by 2050. So, the question among livestock producers is whether this is just a trendy, short-lived fad on the food runway, or will peas, soybeans, beets, and potatoes be as disruptive to the demand curve for beef and poultry as almonds and soy were to dairy products? How do we defend ourselves when “us against them” is really “us against us?” To survive in farming and ranching is to diversify and put our skills to work growing or raising whatever the market dictates. Sometimes that means we are growing competing products. The truth is that none of us are safe from the ire of Greenpeace and anti-agriculture activists and we all depend upon each other to keep agriculture strong.
Let us promote the nutritional benefits of everything we grow, highlight the vast array of choices American agriculture has provided, brag on our environmental stewardship and advocate for truth in labeling so we can all stand on our own merits.
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