In the past 12 months many markets have been witnessing a flexitarian feeding frenzy. More consumers than ever are cutting back on the amount of animal-based products they consume. The UK has led the charge: one in four millennials are reportedly vegan, vegetarian or flexitarian, whilst 28% of all shoppers have cut back on meat, according to Mintel.
Spend in plant-based innovation has rocketed across the bloc. Seven of the top 10 markets for alternative protein launches are European, for instance. Whether it’s Germany, Italy, the Netherlands or the UK, there has been an uptick in NPD. In fact, Europe is the largest market for meat substitutes, accounting for 39% of global sales, according to Allied Market Research.
More money is being pumped into marketing, too: Mintel statistics show that above-the-line, online display and direct mail advertising spend on meat-free foods in the UK jumped by 32% last year.
Quorn – whose 'flexitarian fans' have helped drive a 16% rise in global sales – has been spending more than most. And backed with more bucks from its owners Monde Nissin will continue to do so. “We spent more money [on marketing] last year than the year before and next year we will put more money in than last year,” said marketing director Peter Harrison.
Harrison, speaking back in September, was mindful that interest in the alternative protein space has intensified. “Some of the world’s biggest food companies are starting to take this seriously. The optimist in me says this should be good news, as it will get the message out there.”
The arrival of Beyond Meat’s 'burger that bleeds' – which is already listed in 11,000 outlets in the US – will keep the European brands on their toes. The UK will provide the litmus test for the company’s Beyond Burger, starting sometime in the first quarter of 2018. If things go well then it will likely be rolled out further.
Look at consumer surveys of meat substitutes and there’s an argument that the category is in need of this kind of shake-up.
Mintel’s research in the UK, for example, shows that Quorn is only on the weekly menu for 17% of shoppers, dropping to 10% for tofu-, other soya- and nut-based products. “Frequency of usage remains low,” the analysts noted back in May. And whilst the market is benefitting from the trend for consumers to cut back on meat, meat substitutes are “marred with a bland image”.
One in two UK consumers (both users and non-users) think there’s a lack of exciting flavours in the category. Niccolo Manzoni, a food-tech investor, said the products currently available can be “bland” and “sub-par”, with little choice. “If you want to create options you need meat alternatives that don’t mimic meat but taste good.”
The Beyond Burger tries to do both. Reaction to it over here will be watched closely, both by European companies and Beyond’s competitors in the US, like Impossible Foods. But just because consumers are looking for more choice to satisfy their thirst for non-bloody proteins doesn’t mean they will lap these new burgers up.
Europeans tend to be wary of the US food industry: just look at how chlorinated chicken and genetically modified foods have dominated discussions over any post-Brexit trade deal the UK might do with the US (as they also did previously with the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the US and the EU).
With a product that’s not only meat-free, but GM-, soy- and gluten-free too, Beyond Meat is no Monsanto. However, its backers now include Tyson Foods. Factor in Mintel’s discovery that consumers are “increasingly sceptical” of what goes into manufactured products – whether they are meat-free or not – and there’s a chance some could find the ethical patter that comes with these new patties harder to swallow.
This could leave the door open for European companies. Scalability might well come easier in the US, but there is a plenty of capital about in Europe for the right early-stage products, according to Manzoni. Indeed, as meat companies rebrand to become protein companies many will be looking at meat alternatives. Profits will take time – there will need to be a fair amount of promotional activity given that Beyond Burgers, for example, are twice the price of beef varieties in the US.
Brexit could help. A report just published by Europe’s meat industry, UECBV, concluded that meat products would be amongst the hardest hit in the event of a “hard Brexit” (that is, no trade deal between the UK and the EU). Jobs would be lost and prices would go up.
Meat substitutes already sit at the lucrative intersection between health and ethical consumerism, so throw in a more favourable price point against a beef burger or a pork chop and this flexitarian feeding frenzy could intensify further. “There’s just such a tailwind behind plant-based protein,” said Beyond Meat’s executive chairman Seth Goldman recently. “There’s so much interest and excitement.”
The Beyond Burger’s arrival will certainly get investors thinking and tongues wagging, but it could just be the start of a very interesting year for Europe’s meat-free sector.
Growing demand for meat-alternatives is just one topic that we are investigating at the Food Protein Vision conference, which is taking place in Amsterdam this March. Powered by FoodNavigator, the event will drill down into the hot topics impacting protein manufacturers, from sustainability to expanding in new markets and channels. To find out more about what we have planned, click here.