Meat-free mania – why isn’t McDonald’s lovin’ it?

Big money is being invested in plant-based or lab-grown alternatives as consumers go flexitarian. The burger chains may be missing a trick.

Meatless burgers are big news, and a fair bit of it is thanks to Impossible Foods. It has reportedly ploughed £60m into what appeared to be an impossible mission: a plant-based “meat” that boasts the texture and taste of the real thing. Plenty of vegans and vegetarians have been writing about the Impossible Burger but, as Mary Catherine O’Connor pointed out in the Guardian, this isn’t the target audience.

Impossible Foods “needs to convert the line cook at your favourite greasy spoon diner, and the food services company that sells to your office cafeteria, and eventually McDonald’s, with its 36,538 outlets serving 68 million customers daily in 119 countries”, O’Connor noted in her article.

The number of people choosing meat-free or dairy-free diets is rising, but they still only represent 3.2% of the population in the US and 5.7% in the UK. The flexitarians – those choosing to eat fewer livestock products – and the wannabe flexitarians are where the big money is in meat-free burgers.

A Populus poll commissioned by WWF-UK last year showed that 19% of millennials intend to eat less meat in the next 12 months, while 66% want to be able to choose plant-based options from menus. Hence “foodservice companies stepping up to the plate and offering ‘better’ sets of choices to customers are likely to be more profitable in the long run”, noted the Food Ethics Council in an accompanying report.

McDonald’s UK already has a vegetable deluxe burger as part of a “variety of menu items which are suitable for those wanting to avoid meat and have been approved by the Vegetarian Society”, says its senior sustainability consultant, Helen McFarlane. That’s enough for now: “clean” meat from plant sources isn’t an area the chain is currently exploring, she adds.

But are the fast-food chain and its competitors missing a bigger trick here? Consider the following:

  • 29% of Brits have reduced the amount of meat they eat in the past 12 months.
  • 13% of Brits are vegetarian but more than double that (29%) are prepared to eat more plant-based foods.
  • Flexitarians now represent between 24% and 26% of the population in France, Germany and the UK.
  • Vegetarian dishes account for more than 30% of new menu items.
    Leading pub chains have 19% of their menus targeted at those seeking meat-free options.
  • More than 4,000 foodservice establishments serve Quorn products.

The trend towards less meat is proving hard to ignore – even for meat companies. The first investment made by the new $150m (£120m) venture capital fund set up by Tyson Foods – a company synonymous with poultry, beef and pork products in the US – was a 5% stake in Beyond Meat, which makes burgers and meatballs from plants. It isn’t the first and it won’t be the last.

In January Sainsbury’s announced a project with scientists at Oxford University in an attempt to encourage its customers to eat more veg and less meat. “Shoppers can now choose from a much greater variety of produce than they did in the past, especially when it comes to fruit and vegetables,” Judith Batchelar, director of brand at Sainsbury’s, told the Observer. “That gives them a greater opportunity to make meat-free choices, which is what we are seeing today. The question is: how can we take that further.”

In the catering sector, Sodexo and Vacherin have also both launched notable initiatives to reduce the meat in their menus. Meanwhile, Pret A Manger’s meat-free lunch outlet (branded incidentally as “not just for veggies”) has gone down a storm. They remain the limited exceptions rather than the rule – but for how long?

“Providing meatless burgers on menus helps create a ‘norm’ for the acceptance of eating less meat,” explains Sue Dibb from the Eating Better campaign in our expert panel on the issue overleaf. “It’s a sign of things to come and burger chains need to be prepared for it,” notes her fellow panellist Mark Driscoll, the head of food at Forum for the Future. “They need to look at providing new and novel meat alternatives at a taste and a price that is going to satisfy consumer needs, while benefiting the health of people and planet.”

Some experts, however, have warned against a rush to embrace plant-based alternative meats or “fake” meat created from cells in a laboratory. There’s a risk with alternative proteins that intensive livestock farming is simply replaced with intensive crop farming, while a huge amount of uncertainty remains regarding the inputs required to produce synthetic meat at scale. It’s wise to tread carefully given that most people in the UK eat out at fast-food outlets, restaurants or work canteens so the choices on offer have considerable environmental, social and ethical impacts.

Research by Food Standards Scotland last year showed that a single (unnamed) fast-food chain accounted for 36.9% of the out-of-home meals provided to children aged up to 12. “Health is not a key factor when eating out of home, and appears to be decreasing in importance in Scotland,” FSS concluded. “Furthermore, the motivation to treat ourselves or others has increased.”

FSS suggested that business should be encouraging individuals to choose healthier options as well as reformulating products to reduce calories, fat, sugar and salt. In his submission to Footprint, Bruce Friedrich of the Good Food Institute highlighted that a Big Mac has 540 calories and 29g of fat, while a McVeggie (in India) has 360 calories and 8g of fat. It’s a similar story at Burger King with the vegetarian burger containing less than half as much fat and a third less calories than its beefier cousin. “People are choosing fast food because it’s tasty, cheap, and convenient,” he explains. “If we’re going to improve our food system, healthy, sustainable, climate-friendly options need to become the easiest choice.”

Burger bars will find it increasingly hard to ignore the meat reducers, and a token beanburger or two is unlikely to cut the mustard among those looking for meat-like alternatives.

Many of the high street’s fast-food giants have been desperately trying to revamp menus in an effort to halt a fall in sales and reinvigorate their brands among younger and more discerning consumer segments. It doesn’t seem to be working. Impossible Foods has spent big and raised the (burger) bar; it’s only a matter of time before the mainstream will have to follow suit.

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