Faux meat company Beyond Meat should be taken seriously

Veggie burgers have been around for years without the animal agriculture sector feeling the slightest bite out of their piece of the food industry pie. A new plant-based protein company, which went public May 2, could be the first detectable nibble. The company, Beyond Meat, had 2019’s best first day for Initial Public Offering and their stock surged 163 percent on opening day.

Corbitt Wall, a livestock market analyst in Canyon, Texas, has been monitoring the effect this new trend could have on the beef industry in particular, and says beef producers should not ignore companies like Beyond Meat.

“The perception that it’s a healthier product and the ‘in’ thing to do, especially by millennials in the big city, could hurt us,” Wall said. “They’ve got a lot of investment and they’re getting big enough now where they can advertise and push it to areas outside the big city. Beyond Meat lost over $300 million just last year and but they’re now worth over $3 billion because of the money from outside investors.”

Indeed, urban area consumers seem to have caught the meatless meat bug. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals named Beyond Meat its company of the year in 2013 and celebrities like rapper Snoop Dog, actor Leonardo Dicaprio and NBA stars Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving have endorsed the brand. Wall says when the products were only offered in health food stores like Sprouts and Whole Foods, companies like Beyond Meat did not have much of an effect, but now fast-food restaurants have started offering it as an alternative to beef. 

“They’ve spread to some of the big retail outlets like Burger King, A&W and Red Robin, and anytime you get into a place where people go every day and they see a sign outside that says you can pay an extra dollar for a meatless burger, that makes an impact.” 

If the soy, gluten and animal protein are gone, what is left?

One apparent omission on the Beyond Meat website is what exactly is in their faux beef. No information is provided on the site other than that it is a gluten-, soy- and GMO-free, plant-based protein. 

It turns out these products are not made from vegetables readily available in one’s garden. According to the label, the general ingredient list includes a mixture of pea protein isolates, rice protein, mung bean protein, coconut oil, potato starch, sunflower lecithin, yeast extract, gum arabic, maltodextrin, cellulose from bamboo, methylcellulose, beet juice extract, ascorbic acid, annatto extract, citrus fruit extract and vegetable glycerin. After the mixture is combined it is pushed through an extrusion machine to simulate the texture of real meat. 

Although the rhetoric implies meatless meat is a nutritious alternative, experts warn this product is not healthier than beef. Incredibly, Beyond Meat contains five times the amount of sodium as unseasoned hamburger meat. The astronomic levels of sodium preserve the product and attempt to make it taste somewhat like real beef. Wall says he has not tasted any of the meatless meat products and does not intend to in the future, but has heard mixed reviews from others about the taste.

Who is buying meatless meat and why? 

Beyond Meat calls themselves the future of protein and some consumers believe them. Wall says one of the most puzzling aspects is who is choosing to buy Beyond Meat products. The same individuals with meatless meat in their shopping carts also desire clean living, farm-to-table, wholesome foods without hard to pronounce ingredients, chemicals, additives and they loathe “factory farms.” However, it is hard to believe pea protein isolates can be found at the local farmer’s market and, seemingly without their knowledge, they are consuming a product literally mixed in a lab and shaped in a factory. 

Additionally, recent political statements have influenced consumer’s opinion of beef to a certain degree. Beyond Meat’s IPO coincided with consumer tension over the bombshell “Green New Deal,” which accused agriculture, specially the beef industry, of being a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.

“We’ve got a lot of people in this country—mostly in the densely populated cities—who are worried about the environment and they don’t really know how to help it, but they hear that cows are destroying the environment,” Wall explained. “They have been told this is the next big thing, and they want to be involved in it.” 

It seems Beyond Meat decided to piggy-back on the claims of the GND and the fear it instilled because Beyond Meat’s website claims 51 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are driven by livestock rearing and processing. In actuality, the USDA reports animal agriculture only contributes 3.3 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. 

What should be done?

“It’s frustrating that our industry can’t push the facts to people and get ahead of this,” Wall said. “I think this is an excellent opportunity for the industry to see the beef check-off dollar at work. I think we need to see the powers from the beef council seek out some popular restaurants that will vow to sell only real beef and to enter a partnership with them to promote it and educate people about it.” 

Although Wall is concerned about these fake meat companies, he says, as of right now, they have not started to affect beef’s demand, and he hopes it stays that way.

“I don’t think that they’ve reached the economies of scale yet,” Wall said. “I suspect they’re still spending a tremendous amount on research and development. If the popularity increases, they’re eventually going to be able to make it cheaper than what we can do.” 

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However, Wall does not believe fake meat companies can ever come close to certain products only cattle can procure.

“I don’t see any way they can replicate the consistency and the taste of steak, roast beef and some of our other higher dollar products.” 

Wall says beef producers should be working to secure beef’s reputation as a responsibly sourced, delicious and healthy protein. Companies like Beyond Meat will continue to play upon consumer’s pathos and, in contrast, the agriculture industry must drive the logos of our product and continue to educate our audience about the quality meat we deliver.

“The longer we let it go before we see some sizeable blowback from the industry and real meat lovers, the longer it’s going to hang around,” he explained. “We can’t just sit on our heels and watch the popularity grow and grow and become more of a mainstay in our society.”

Lacey Newlin can be reached at [email protected].