The broad spectrum of choices in today’s ‘meat’ aisle will continue to diversify as brands work to satisfy the appetites of ever-growing climate-conscious consumer market — and each product has its own benefits, challenges and impacts.
The average US meat counter is probably more diverse today than it has ever been.
There are, of course, the conventional cuts coming from the factory farming and processing plants; but there’s also an expanding section devoted to organic and less-processed meats, along with at least one part of the case hosting the explosion of “alternative” options now available.
As with so many other categories, consumers now demand more transparency and understanding about where their meat comes from, whether it’s plant- or animal-based, whether the source is natural or lab-grown — all of which lead to a broader conversation about the overall environmental impact of their choices.
According to a recent FoodPrint report, 98 percent of US consumers who buy alternative meat also purchase conventional cow products (of any standard), so the impact of both has never been more relevant.
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“Regenerative agriculture is not an abstract concept anymore,” Gina Asoudegan, VP of Mission and Innovation at Applegate, told Sustainable Brands™. The Hormel-owned company, one of the larger regenerative meat producers in the US, recently released the Do Good Dog — the first nationally available hot dog made with beef raised on verified regenerative US grasslands.
For a company of its size, Applegate’s commitment to regenerative practices is impressive, and represents a broader approach to get higher-quality products into mainstream grocery — especially those with a more rounded impact on the environment.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, beef production and livestock are responsible for 14.5 percent of human-caused emissions globally; regenerative ag practices can reduce those emissions by more than half, but at the expense of significantly more land required for grazing, herding, etc.
“What we’re looking at with regenerative agriculture is there’s a misperception that all meat is bad and all meat is contributing to methane and climate change,” says Christie Zimmerman, Product Standards Manager at organic retail chain Natural Grocers.
As one of the larger grocery chains with potentially the toughest standards across its entire product lineup, Natural Grocers is a big proponent of science-driven approaches to what makes it onto the shelf — and that also applies to alternative meat products.
“We’re also looking at a host of other ingredients, mainly what’s on our ‘Do Not Carry’ List,” Zimmerman says. “[For example,] a lot of the vegan products (such as alternative meat) are not within the spirit of what a vegan lifestyle is.”
Demystifying 'alternative' meats
The conversation gets trickier when it comes to alternative options such as Impossible Meat, and plant-based sources such as chickpea protein.
According to Taly Nechushtan, CEO of Israeli chickpea protein producer InnovoPro, chickpeas emit 0.6-2 kg CO2 equivalent per 1 kg edible seeds — compared to 1 kg of beef protein produced — which results in emissions of 25-99 kg CO2 eq per 1 kg meat (with variances based on actual production areas). So, the climate impact of production of the chickpea protein is roughly 40 times less per kg than beef protein.
“Furthermore, as a rotational crop, chickpeas return nitrogen to soil, contributing to soil health — contrary to crops such as wheat or corn, which deplete nutrients from soil and require heavy fertilization for cultivation,” Nechushtan adds.
For plant protein, there’s a mix of transparent, “clean” products and additive-laden options available in stores right now — with the latter somewhat defeating the purpose of choosing a plant-based option.
When looking at the largely unregulated alternative meat space, things aren’t as clear.
Take the primary player of Impossible Foods. Its “meat” is soy-based, sourced from a GMO crop; then blended with a range of additives, one of which hasn’t been used in food before, according to the FoodPrint report.
Impossible has emerged as the dominant player in the alternative-protein space — not only in grocery, but nationally across big restaurants; and it’s led to something of an acceptance that all alternative products are “healthier” than their cow-based counterparts. It’s a give-and-take when it comes to their actual nutritional value; but one detailed analysis found that Impossible meat has less protein and higher sodium content than the average burger.
Moving forward, education will be key
Nearly every person we spoke with for this story noted there’s still a long way to go in terms of education around what regenerative is, what alternative is (and isn’t) and where things go in this crucial decade for the stability of the global climate.
“I would want the conversation to be further along,” says Mike Murray, CEO of Teton Waters Ranch — producer of 100 percent grass-fed and -finished beef products. “We are enjoying increased understanding and engagement from grocery buyers, but we want them to be more willing to make that switch.”
Grocery buyers are the first step in the education chain as they dictate what consumers ultimately get to choose from on the shelves.
“Consumers want this,” Murray adds.
Nechushtan expects traction to continue growing in the plant-based market, and InnovoPro is positioning itself to respond.
“We are actively expanding our production capacity in North America and our operational set-up in the US to better serve our customers, as we strongly believe plant-based alternatives will continue to become the norm,” she notes.
Overall, it seems that neither meat category is really concerned about the other. The regenerative producers are appealing to a consumer who likely cares more than the average person about where and how their meat is produced, while the plant-based companies are scaling to appeal to a fast-growing market segment.
There seems to be a space for everyone, especially as both sides reckon with the impact of their products over the next decade.