Remember RFID chips?
Backed by a big publicity blitz, the alleged potential of RFID (radio frequency identification) chips was splashed all over both trade and mainstream media in the late 1990s. They were going to be the answer to everyone’s logistical problems, enabling pallets, cases and even individual packages to be tracked in near real-time.
But reality, as it always does, got in the way. RFID chips turned out to be fragile, too expensive, and unreliable, especially inside factories where walls, equipment, pillars, etc., blocked the signal. They still have many applications, of course, but the widespread adoption in the CPG industries that was so confidently predicted never materialized.
I believe that dynamic is playing out across a much larger scale when it comes to plant-based analogue meat.
It’s hardly necessary to go into the details of all the attention these meat alternatives have garnered. The fact that Tyson Foods, Kellogg and other mega-processors have established meat-substitute lines should show how seriously the concept is being taken.
The question is, how seriously should it be taken?
Arguably a watershed moment for plant-based products was when Impossible Foods started pulling down contracts from major fast-food chains about four years ago. This was predicted to be the thin end of the wedge that would make America fall in love with plant-based meat substitutes.
It hasn’t worked out that way. Plant-based meats have something like a 1.4% share of the American meat and poultry market. Sales have been stagnant or going backward. According to a recent report, sales in the second quarter have declined 8% for plant-based cheese, 7% for burgers and 17% for sausage and fish. This trend has been going on since at least last year; according to the Financial Times, U.S. sales went down by 0.6% in 2021 – after having increased 46% in 2020.
This tells me that the same dynamic is at work here that George Orwell described about cigarettes made with licorice root as a tobacco substitute during the Spanish Civil War: “I tried one of those once. (A lot of people tried them once.)” They’re not garnering repeat business because the taste just isn’t there.
And to be brutally honest, neither is the nutritive value. Plant-based meat is free of cholesterol, but in many cases, that’s its only advantage over the real thing. Fat and sodium are as high or higher with most products.
All this is probably why, according to one study, none of more than 100 meatless brands in the U.S. and elsewhere have showed a profit after five or more years in business. The effort in futility is arguably led by Beyond Meat, the largest publicly traded meat-substitute company; it posted a net loss of $182.1 million in fiscal 2021 and $97.1 million in the most recent quarter.
Beyond Meat has had plenty of problems unrelated to how its products taste. They’re engaged in a bitter battle with a former co-manufacturer over trade secrets, performance and product safety. (A trial is scheduled to start Sept. 26.)
If that’s not enough, Beyond suspended its COO after an altercation in a parking garage in which he allegedly bit another driver on the nose. The “clandestine meat eater” jokes just write themselves, but it isn’t really funny. I don’t know what anger issues that man may have, but the stress of his job couldn’t have helped.
It's the kind of stress that is settling over the plant-based meat segment as a whole. Because of the category’s inherent (so far) limitations and disadvantages, the hype surrounding it just can’t be met. In fact, you could say that meeting it would be Beyond Impossible.