How do you separate a food trend from a food fad?
It’s a valid, and pressing, question for the agriculture sector, because these fads can have a huge impact.
Recall the gluten-free craze of a few years ago, when many fretted over the cumulative impact on wheat prices. Or the fad diets that are basically animal proteins, fats and vegetables, which have been said to support meat prices at levels they would otherwise not have attained.
Both were very high-profile dietary trends that swept through the global economy leaving a clearly defined wake in their path. But in the end did they really amount to much?
Bread and pasta are still being made and consumed the world over, and four or five years on from the height of the gluten-free mania, little is now heard of it.
And while some still practise some form of high-protein, low-carb diets — be it Atkins, keto or any variation in between — there doesn’t seem to be a lot of evidence that it’s going to leave any larger impact over time.
In this light a few of the latest announcements in the ‘fake meat’ market space are worth pondering. For those who have been living in a cave, atop a mountain, with no cell coverage, the last year or so has seen a bombardment of hype surrounding non-animal protein sources.
If one buys the hype it would seem the cattle, pork and poultry producers of the nation should be glancing warily over their shoulder, for fear of being overtaken by faux burgers.
But just this week Canada’s fast-food brand champion announced its total retreat from this market. You’ll recall Tim Hortons launched Beyond Meat sausage patties at its 4,000 locations across Canada with much fanfare this past June.
But just a few months later it scaled that back to just British Columbia and Ontario stores. At the time the company’s rationale was the initial launch was simply a test, and the higher numbers of vegetarian and vegan consumers in both provinces warranted it remaining on the menu.
And now even those stores are halting sales of the product noting “the product was not embraced by our guests as we thought it would be.”
This marks a — thus far — rare setback for what had been a category-leading juggernaut that could well develop into a significant market for Manitoba farmers.
Beyond Meat and French ingredient maker Roquette, who are building a pea-processing plant expected to open shortly in Portage la Prairie, in mid-January announced a “multi-year pea protein supply agreement” that would “significantly” increase the two companies’ business dealings.
The Tim Hortons experience does raise a significant question: how durable will this sudden interest in plant-based protein really be?
It originally kicked off in Canada in mid-2018 when A&W Canada announced its Beyond Meat burger and consumer interest was so high that it sold out at most locations. But since then other fast-food giants including Burger King and McDonald’s have introduced trendy new plant-based products and this week even the venerable KFC chicken chain announced it was partnering with Beyond Meat.
So the hype continues, but one has to wonder, is this really a reflection of market demand? Or are food companies simply reacting to competitors and jumping in, figuring it’s better to try and fail along with everyone else, rather than miss what could be the next big thing?
It’s the food industry equivalent of the social media phenomena FOMO — or ‘fear of missing out,’ defined as “anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on a social media website.”
What was formerly the ‘meat’ industry clearly thinks this trend has legs. They’re all furiously rebranding themselves as ‘protein’ companies, including venerable names like Cargill, Tyson and even Canada’s other food brand champion, Maple Leaf Foods.
This past spring CEO Michael McCain announced plans for its wholly owned plant protein subsidiary, Greenleaf Foods, to build a US$310-million, 230,000-square-foot facility “in North America” in coming years.
That was in addition to the US$260 million spent in 2017 to acquire U.S.-based plant protein operations Lightlife and Fieldroast.
A half-billion-dollar investment speaks to the company’s belief in the market segment, but it remains to be seen if consumer demand really will develop as expected.
Those who see a great future for the sector point to the rising numbers of vegetarians, but some of their headline numbers do involve a bit of statistical flimflammery.
A “600 per cent increase” in the number of vegetarians between 2014 and 2017 sounds impressive. That is, until you realize that still only amounts to 3.4 per cent of Americans, according to a Harris Research poll.
This is definitely a sector worth watching. But the truth is nobody knows how it will play out.