McPlant marks pivotal moment for meat-free

McDonald’s long-awaited move into plant-based patties comes at a time when the market is under scrutiny for its health credentials. David Burrows reports.

Finally, McDonald’s has woken up to the somewhat established trend of plant-based eating. The McPlant is arriving at a Golden Arches soon. So, what do we know?

Very little, other than what it’s called and that it’ll start being rolled out next year. In its announcement, the fast food giant said markets can adopt the McPlant when they’re ready and it expects some to test the burger in 2021.

A bit of secrecy can certainly suit a new launch and this is a pretty big one – at a potentially pivotal time for plant-based products.

Indeed, three years ago we wondered why the largest fast food chain wasn’t interested in developing something that people wanted. Flexitarianism was growing fast and innovation to satisfy meat-lovers with meat-free products was accelerating. Even meat giants like Tyson were taking a bite out of the market.

In January, Mintel reported that over the past two years, the number of Brits who have eaten meat-free foods “shot up” from 50% in 2017 to 65% in 2019. Sales increased 40% between 2014 and 2019 to hit £816m; by 2024 they could sail past £1.1bn.

Following covid, Mintel could well have to revise those forecasts upwards. Reports abound that plant-based brands have profited during the pandemic. “The data is clear,” claimed the Good Food Institute after assessing US sales patterns from March to June. “The plant-based meat category has remained resilient in the face of economic uncertainty, outperforming both its prior-year growth rates and animal-based meat’s growth rates.”

Meanwhile, a Datassential study found that one in four (25%) US consumers will be less likely to eat meat following reports of the spread of covid among workers in plants. Slightly more, 29%, say they’ll be less likely to order meat dishes at restaurants. Interest in health, innovation and accessibility could all be playing a part in the slight, but continuing steady swing from meat to meat-free.

"It's far too soon to say this is a pivotal moment," Jan Dutkiewicz, a political economist, postdoctoral fellow at Concordia University and visiting fellow at Harvard Law School, told recently. But with meat struggling from bad press – on everything from the spread of covid-19 in packaging plants  to climate change and antibiotic use – perhaps McDonald’s sees this as less opportunity and more safety net.

That isn’t to say the writing is on the wall for beef burgers. Far from it. Some analysts joke that the figures posted by plant-based, although impressive, represent a rounding error for the conventional meat market. Across McDonald’s global business, sales exceeded $100bn last year, the Economist noted in November, with operating margins hitting 43% and market value almost doubling since 2015 to $160bn. The paper, however, noted that McDonald’s remained a “laggard” on plant-based products.

Whether the McPlant will hit the spot remains to be seen. It’s been tested in Canada but details of McPlant 2.0 are, as noted recently, murky (the “sneak peak” on the website is of the packaging rather than the burger). Reports initially suggested that the fast food chain had teamed up with Beyond Meat to create the new plantpatty – but that wasn’t anywhere in the announcement on McDonald’s site. This is a burger “crafted for McDonald’s, by McDonald’s”.

Better late than never. Burger King launched its plant-based Rebel Whopper in January, though has been beset by controversy. Earlier this year the Advertising Standards Authority upheld complaints from vegans that the adverts for the burger were misleading: the small print disclosed the burgers were cooked alongside meat products but this didn’t “override the overall impression that the burger was suitable for vegetarians and vegans”, the ASA said.

McDonald’s arrives on the scene at an intriguing time for this particular suite of products. Brands in Europe were given a boost in October when the European Parliament rejected a ban on terms like ‘veggie burger’ and ‘plant-based steak’ (those producing dairy-free milks and cheeses were not so lucky). Whether a ban would have dented sales is hard to tell, but the extra media exposure the vote created will only drive interest.

But with some products mainstreaming and the whole category almost constantly in the spotlight, scrutiny has spread too. Principally: are they too processed? This debate has been flickering for a couple of years but never quite caught fire. In 2019, Ruairí Ó Dochartaigh co-authored a report for Deloitte: Plant-based derivatives – driving industry M&A, outlined how investment was pouring into the plant-based space, retailers were opening up more room on shelf and diners all over the world were buying into the idea of burgers made from beans rather than beef. The result was a growth “spiral” that could even “accelerate”.

“It still stands up,” says Ó Dochartaigh, financial advisory director at the firm, of the report. In more ways than one. Because in it was a warning: meatless food had become a media darling but there was “growing awareness” that some products were not all they were cracked up to be. There were concerns for example over the water footprint of almonds, reliance on genetic modification for soya and the high salt content of those beautifully branded burgers. “Negative media coverage could potentially have an impact on the future growth of certain products,” the consultants wrote.

Recently, some of the biggest plant-based burger makers have been fighting publicly over the health credentials of their products. Lightlife, the meat-free brand owned by packaged meats company Maple Leaf Foods, has shortened ingredients lists and pointed the finger at “hyper-processed” competitors like Beyond and Impossible Foods. Some products can come across as “chemical soup” Dan Curtin, president of Greenleaf Foods, which owns Lightlife, told me.

Marketing trick or smoke and mirrors, Lightlife’s move has raised a serious question.

That is: can these plant-based meat alternatives (PBMAs) be considered part of a healthy low-carbon diet (one that aims to reduce greenhouse gases due to the methods of production, packaging processing, transport, preparation, and waste of food) that can help reduce reliance on industrial meat production? “The answer to that question remains far from clear given the lack of rigorously designed, independently funded studies,” noted Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard TH Chan school of public health, in an opinion paper for the American Medical Association in October 2019.

He added that PBMAs “may have some role in improving planetary and dietary health, but there is no evidence to suggest that they can substitute for healthy diets focused on minimally processed plant foods”.

Data reported by Footprint in July suggested that the Veganuary meat- and dairy-free campaign triggers a surge in demand for convenience plant-based foods rather than fresh vegetables. More than 550 new vegan menu options were added into chain restaurants last January; this year innovation may well be more subdued due to covid-19 but those sites that are open will be keen to tap into demand.

The likes of Lightlife, Impossible and now McDonald’s would argue that their innovations were never meant to compete with bean stews or broccoli. There is also an argument that ‘dirty vegan’ products have enticed more customers to try plants rather than meat. This should help curb emissions from food consumption.

“Processed plant-based products are readily marketable and have proved highly effective in meeting the demands of individuals with non-healthy motivations for replacing animal-sourced foods, such as environmental sustainability and animal welfare,” noted experts from Rothamstead Research, Cambridge University, Imperial College London and University College London in a recent think piece for the Global Food Security Programme. They, like Chu, think it’s worth keeping an eye on these products – especially those sold by the biggest burger brand in the world.

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