Meat substitutes are more expensive than their meaty equivalents. Until they're cheaper, they will struggle to bite into the protein market.
Having worked in this industry, I can add two things to this conversation which are very important.
Firstly, meat at supermarkets is often sold as a 'loss leader'. We hear a lot about how supermarkets do this with alcohol and it is part of the industry conversation; particuarly in terms of how this is deemed as a threat to pubs and restaurants, as well as potentially an issue regarding alcoholism. We have seen the Scottish government introduced miniumum unit pricing in regards to this challenge.
This is, in my opinion, a better way to think about a 'meat tax', which is unlikely to ever be politically viable. It is not about increasing the cost of meat, but preventing it from being sold at a loss...
The second part to this is the margin on meat substitute products. The way brands like Beyond Meat and Quorn even managed to get on supermarket shelves in the first place, is that they offer a really good margin to the supermarkets. Those brands make some money, but RRP is set at a level that the supermarket makes good margin too. It is therefore quite profitable for them to stock and sell, and so they are happy to do so. This was ten years ago, super important just to get listed. These days it's super important so that your meat substitute brand gets listed, over the many competitors. This dynamic is not at play when it's an 'own brand' meat substitute brand, which is why you can see such a discrepancy on those products in your research.
Fundementally, my view based on my experience is that it is the supermarkets, and not the meat substitute brands, that have to drive the change here, if we are to reduce the 'price gap''.
I completely agree. Interestingly, just yesterday the German supermarket chain Lidl announced that they are going to price meat substitutes at the same level as meat going forward. See here (German only): https://unternehmen.lidl.de/pressreleases/2023/231011_proteinstrategie
Thanks for these great insights. Again. 😊👍I was wondering if meat is being subsidised in a similar way like fossil fuels? Reducing those might be easier (less resistance from the public) than raising taxes?
It is hard to change eating habits that are ingrained - pun intended - for decades. I see more willingness in younger people like my daughter's generation, i.e., millennials. I am more likely to eat less red meat than go looking for a substitute.
I'm somewhat surprised that you didn't offer a link to your article that reviews the carbon footprint of various foods, https://ourworldindata.org/food-choice-vs-eating-local . I can eat less beef but giving up the 3 Cs, cheese, chocolate, and coffee, will be even harder.
Yes they should be a lot cheaper but companies are only chasing high margin products at first, and then true competition would lower costs from thereon but true competition is the exception rather than the rule for most industries that matter. Let's say it's may take a while to happen in this case, since most customers are geographically captive from their grocery store.
As alternative, a new development like an Instant Pot or other smart pressure cooker makes cooking beans a breeze. Cheaper, healthier and now just as convenient as meat substitutes. So is tofu once you now how to cook it - those non-sticky pans help.
Has been mentioned but the third option seems to be changing the subsidy distribution for meat and meat replacements. Great data as always thanks Hannah!
Thank you so much, Hannah! I'm so very tired of PBM companies just playing to vegans. As per https://www.mattball.org/2022/04/plant-based-chicken-taste-test-and.html:
On Beyond's package, they loudly say "NO GMO's." I remember listening to multiple interviews with Beyond's Ethan Brown, who said, "People tell us they don't want GMOs." I have to say, with all due respect, you are talking to the wrong people, Mr. Brown. What people want is cheap meat. Full stop.
My wife wanted to go vegetarian, I'm the cook so I bought some Impossible products. I found them expensive, overly processed and not so good tasting. It's much cheaper and better to make burgers at home with legumes, rice, onions, and spices (with egg or vegan binder). Tempeh is a nice product that few still seem to buy--I have made it at home and it is excellent. Asian markets in SoCal have long had soy based substitutes which are inexpensive but again overly processed tasting and so so flavor. So I'm waiting for cultured meat products to get cheaper to go that route. I might also add that here in Texas dried legumes sell for an average $1 per pound. I can buy whole chickens for $1.28 a pound at WinCo and chicken leg quarters often for $0.70 a pound there and Aldi's. Chickens are marvelously efficient at the resource to product ratio--I even wonder why companies are trying to culture chicken meat (well except for ethical reasons of course).
This scenario reminds me of the hemp industry--my friends often post memes on how hemp is so efficient, grows fast, etc. yet whenever I check prices for clothes, building products, and such they are more expensive, sometimes much more than standard materials. Is that because of scaling costs or is it because they're targeting wealthy people?
In my landscaping profession I've seen the price of mineral products skyrocket when they were advertised as "organic". Same with many other "organic" products which by all rights should be cheaper. Again, are they targeting the well to do? Seems like they're more interested making money than helping people or the planet.
Perhaps combining a small meat tax with subsidies for meat substitutes could do the trick.
PS: A meat tax based on externalities would almost certainly lead to a *lot* more chickens suffering on factory farms.
In my little corner of the US upper-midwest, the price/texture/taste/appearance/... of substitutes never gets to relevance. It needs to bleed. It needs to have come from a hitherto living creature.
A little off topic maybe but the paragraph where you question the cost to make plant based meat
“What costs so much: the ingredients, the energy for processing, is it a problem of scale?”
Made me question what is the cost in sustainability and emissions for all processed food products. What is the calculation of all the processing for all the “junk food” that is unhealthy. The stores have whole aisles of plant based processed food mainly corn and potato chips just for one example.
Also, we could mention the fact that studies show that overall, plant-based meat substitutes are healthier than meat products. I encourage you to read the article below, but to summarize some key aspects, we could quote this:
"Based on the UK's Nutrient Profiling Model, 40% of meat products were classified as ‘less healthy’ compared to just 14% of [plant-based alternatives]".
Thanks for the post. It was quite interesting and it shares the common view that there's right now on meat alternatives.
Some inputs I'd like to add.
My opinion regarding price, is that most of the companies that sell these products have found a nice target of people like you, who don't mind paying more for a meat alternative. So they aren't focused on making it cheaper rather than on diversifying their products and improving their quality. I also think that those companies increase a bit the price just cause they offer something veggie based. They don't compete in price and don't want to.
This brings us to the point that to have a big impact these products have to be consumed globally, and most people cannot afford to pay more for meat. You offer a solution of taxing meat products. Maybe some countries could do that, but I'm sure we can agree that most of them won't do it, even less so the low income ones.
One last thing, I missed in your post any reference to lab meat. I know that for now they are even more expensive, but it's just a matter if time until they get cheaper
I've often wondered about this, so thanks for doing the maths on it. Clearly, you are right. I wonder if encouraging people onto non meat products by fiscal incentive could be bundled with future efforts to encourage healthy eating using similar levers. When we have a government that is interested in public health, that is.
This is an important essay especially for folks like myself who have made the conversion to eating a vegan diet because of significant health related events. We made the conversion in ‘15 more or less instantaneously because we were diagnosed with coronary artery disease (CAD). I had five cardiac blockages and my wife had an adverse calcium scan revealing CAD. We became vegans to try and minimize the progress of CAD. In ‘21, I had quintuple coronary bypass surgery (CABG5), a survived the surgery and the cardiac rehabilitation all during the peak of the Covid outbreak. During this this period, 11/15 until the present, we watched the meat substitutes enter the marketplace. Like yourself, we are fortunate that we can purchase the more costly meat substitutes. We have tried them, but we seriously question the issue of what chemicals are added to the meat substitute alternatives to achieve the desired protein equivalent of the meat alternative and the texture and taste comparisons. So, we have opted for those meat substitutes that have the fewest chemical additives in relation to their protein. Many that require Wikipedia research to find out what the chemicals used in production actually are and if the chemicals are safe to add into our diet. Often, we simply stay away from the more notable brands of meat substitutes because of their complex chemical ingredients. In the United States, the political atmosphere surrounding taxing of industrial production of meat in conservative rural America would provoke accusations of government over-reach. The meat farming lobby in Washington, DC would be working 24/7 to block any efforts to involve the government in the regulation of meat production using a national “meat tax.” It is my opinion that if the meat substitute companies want to penetrate the more financially challenged segments of the population, it will need to find a way to reduce the production costs of their products without opting for government prohibitive taxing to help them.