The opinions in this commentary are those of Will Coggin, the managing director of the Center for Consumer Freedom.
To say that history often repeats itself is an understatement when it comes to the plant-based foods revolution. Identity crises, labeling issues, and spats with technology abound. For everyone uncertain about what the future will hold for meat as it squares off against plant-based and laboratory-cultured alternatives, look no further than what happened to dairy.
For a long while, the milk industry didn’t take the market threat posed by soy and other plant-based milks seriously. As historian Nadia Berenstein puts it, soy milk was “the food equivalent of a hairy-legged gal in Birkenstocks: joyless and unappealing to most people, but there was always a niche of enthusiasts who couldn’t get enough.” So when sales for plant based milks began to climb in the late 2000s, dairy producers dismissed the growing popularity as a fad.
Yet in the intervening years, plant-based milks proved their staying power. With an almost $2 billion domestic market, soy, almond, and other plant-based milks now make up 13 percent of all milk sales in the U.S. They’re a staple in mainstream grocers, occupying valuable shelf space once solely belonging to dairy milk.
The small faction of dairy farmers who saw the writing on the wall decided that the milk wars could be won through labeling. By forcing their competitors to call the non-dairy products “almond beverage” or “soy drink,” dairy farmers believed that consumers would stop seeing them as a substitute for cow’s milk.
The labeling campaign sparked a 20-year effort to convince the Food and Drug Administration to enforce its formal definition that milk is “the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.” With the exception of an acknowledgment from outgoing FDA administrator Scott Gottlieb that “an almond doesn’t lactate”, milk producers have made little progress on the labeling front.
Yet even if cow’s milk had been the only “milk” so labeled, the war of words still failed to address the root of shifting consumer preferences.
Just look at margarine, a butter alternative made from vegetable oil. At the behest of the 19th century dairy industry, 32 states prohibited companies from dying margarine yellow, lest it resemble butter. Federal rules stipulate that companies can’t call margarine butter, either. Yet it was margarine’s own failings, a high trans fat content and lack of continuity with the “natural” movement, that ultimately made the spread fall out of favor--not its color or the fact that it can’t be sold as “vegetable butter.”
For a long while, the dairy industry doubled down on labeling when it could have acknowledged that one in five Americans were consuming less dairy for health reasons.
Now, several decades later, milk makers are starting to catch on. Value-added milks, like ultra-filtered Fairlife, A2 milk, and Amazon’s new Happy Belly brand, are easier on the stomach for those who suffer discomfort when drinking regular milk. This category, along with organic and grass-fed milks, are the only products bucking the current downward trend in milk consumption (or at least not shrinking as quickly).
Unfortunately, it’s too late for milk to completely regain the lost ground. Plant-based milks are expected to add another $1 billion to their market share by next year, whereas sales of dairy milk are expected to drop another $2 billion by 2020. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than half of U.S. dairy farms have closed since 2000, dropping from more than 83,000 to roughly 40,000.
To make matters worse, the remaining dairies will have to contend with laboratory milk, produced with modified yeast in much the same way that we make medical-grade human insulin. The Silicon Valley startup, Perfect Day, has already teamed up with Archer Daniels Midland to bring the world’s first cow-free dairy proteins to market this year.
Anyone following the fake meat saga can recognize the parallel trends.
Like the dairy industry, the hallmark of most meat producers’ reaction to this new generation of plant-based burgers and sausages has been to treat them as a small nuisance; no different from the bland, rubbery Tofurky of generations past.
In a fashion similar to dairy, meat producers are taking up labeling and standards of identity as their primary defense. At the urging of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, seven states have adopted or are considering a ban on marketing plant-based foods as “meat”, with several states preemptively defining lab-grown meat out of existence.
The strategy betrays a patent misunderstanding of what’s driving plant-based meat sales: The simple availability of a food that allows consumers to make what they perceive to be a healthier, more ethical choice without sacrificing taste. That perception is driven by one-sided reporting and advocacy from trade groups such as the Good Food Institute (which is, incidentally, headed by an ex-VP of PETA).
Yet here, too, the plant-based options have an Achilles heel. Their heavily processed, lengthy ingredient list is out-of-step with consumer demand for whole, natural products.
Soy protein is often the favored ingredient for plant-based meat manufacturers attempting to mimic the texture of meat. However, the extrusion process through which the protein is separated from oil involves heavy processing with industrial chemicals. The final products are also very often high in salt, added sugars, and flavoring in order to make them palatable. When you consider that 69 percent of consumers prefer their food be free from artificial ingredients, plant-based foods have a clear weakness.
Right now, plant-based meat products are benefitting from an undeserved health halo. The meat industry should be broadly focused on presenting their products as value-added while marketing specifically to fake meat’s failures. For example, leading pork producers have worked to reduce the number of ingredients in their sausages and bacon--given current consumer trends, that asset should be highlighted against the lengthy ingredient list of a Beyond Sausage or Beyond Burger.
This failure to focus on countering the false health halo is one reason that will lead to a decline hitting the meat industry. Consider that plant-based food sales are up 13 to 19 percent in every U.S. census region, with the Southeast leading the pack.
If meat continues down the path traveled by dairy, the next chapter will be hard to swallow: Widespread closure of cattle farms, hog farms, and poultry farms, consolidation, and the ultimate loss of jobs and livelihoods for those working in animal agriculture. That’s not a future anyone should aspire to. And sadly it could easily be prevented.