Fake meat makers push back

Can you tell which is the real beef patty and which is the fake? The beef industry and the fake food industry are gearing up for a fight over labels. On the one hand, the beef industry argues that labeling on plant-based "meat" alternatives is misleading and confusing to consumers. On the other, groups representing alternative proteins argue that the First Amendment allows them to call their products what they like. The patty on the left is a 1/4-lb. Beyond Burger, and the one on the right is a 1/3-lb. 80/20 ground beef patty.

To farmers and ranchers, one of the most interesting things about the menu experiment McDonald’s just announced in Canada might be the product’s name. The new offering is a “P.L.T.”—“Plant. Lettuce. Tomato.” McDonald’s is teaming up with Beyond Meat to make this sandwich and offer it on a trial basis at 28 locations in southern Ontario. Note that the name makes no claim on the word “meat.”

In the long run, the name won’t be the important thing. Assuming the experiment is successful and McDonald’s brings the P.L.T. to its 14,000 U.S. locations, the two biggest burger chains in the U.S. will be going head-to-head with new meatless offerings. Just as some people choose McDonald’s or Burger King because they prefer the Big Mac or the Whopper, others will decide between the two based on their preference for the P.L.T. or the Impossible Whopper.

Burger King has been teaming up with Impossible Foods to sell that sandwich nationwide for a couple months. By one account, the chain’s tests of the Impossible Whopper “showed that it drew new customers to the chain,” people who typically shop at places like Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Panera Bread. Sooner or later, McDonald’s will want a piece of that action.

A showdown between these two plant-based burgers would potentially serve as an interesting test of what matters more to their fans—taste or ideology. To understand why, it helps to review some background.

As I’ve written in previous posts, what distinguishes the products of Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat from everyday veggie burgers is that they’re aimed at carnivores. Their taste and mouthfeel come close to those of meat; they even bleed on the grill. Many meat eaters will try them, if only out of curiosity.

But will they prove to have more than novelty value? Their taste approaches meat, but it’s a safe bet that many carnivores will think real meat tastes better. They cost more—a lot more at this point, though their price is likely to come down. Nutritionally, they’re not superior to beef. They have similar levels of saturated fat, and while they’re cholesterol free, they’re very high in sodium.

If they aren’t better than beef in taste, price or nutrition, their main selling point would be the claim, which many consumers seem to have accepted, that they are better for the environment. Presumably, concern for the environment will be on the minds of those who go to McDonald’s or Burger King in pursuit of plant burgers.

So far, I’ve been talking about the two plant burgers as if they were interchangeable. They aren’t. Though both use various oils to add fat and marbling, Beyond Meat’s burger is made of peas, mung beans and rice, plus beet and pomegranate for the redness. Impossible Foods’ product features soy leghemoglobin, whose genes the company insert in a genetically-engineered yeast.

By many accounts, the Impossible Burger is more beef-like. Consumer Reports says it’s “closer in look and taste: browned on the edges with a pink center, plus a savory, char flavor and a juicy, fatty mouthfeel. The Beyond Burger has a milder, charred flavor and a slight vegetal or grain-like aftertaste.”

So if it’s taste the consumer cares about, she might opt for the Impossible Whopper. But the genetic engineering Impossible uses will drive some plant-burger fans to its rival, Beyond. Which will prove the more important consideration, taste or anti-GMO ideology?

If you’re tempted, as I am, to say taste, you might conclude that Burger King will win the plant-burger showdown. Remember, though, that most of the customers will be carnivores and that for many of them real beef will compete on taste grounds.

Farmers and ranchers obviously have a stake in all this. As they observe this coming showdown, they might keep three things in mind. First, beef is still very much in the game.

Second, farm groups who want to keep beef in the game are wasting their time on campaigns to ban plant-based products from being called “meat.” With the name P.L.T., McDonald’s has demonstrated again what I argued in a previous post: Clever marketers can easily hurdle this legal obstacle.

Third, the showdown could give us some sense of just how strong anti-GMO sentiment is among consumers. If Impossible prevails, it could mean that for many consumers, taste trumps ideology.

Stay tuned. — Urban C. Lehner, DTN editor emeritus

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