“This article “Where’s the Beef” in Bloomberg BusinessWeek confirms our research on the rise of plant-protein foods and beverages, www.ethicalmarkets.com ( Green Transition Scoreboard® 2019-2020 Transitioning to Science-Based Investing) and the livestock (mostly cattle industry) responses. This next stage is the battling of brands, supply chains, retail outlets and claims on health, while the sustainability advantages of these cheaper, more efficient ways of turning plants into protein foods are still uncontested, since livestock -produced meat accounts for 14.5% of global greenhouse gases. The burning Amazon rain forests have still not been linked yet with the raising and pasturing of cattle and growing soy for their feed! Stay tuned.
~Hazel Henderson, Editor “
August 21, 2019, 5:00 AM EDT
Impossible Foods has Burger King. Beyond Meat has Whole Foods.
The ultimate prize, McDonald’s, is still up for grabs.
Ethan Brown, chief executive officer of Beyond Meat Inc., doesn’t want to talk about his company’s stock price. He’s more than happy to talk about Beyond’s plant-derived meat matrix or its athlete spokespeople, or even how his products aren’t quite as good as they should be—yet. But the stock price? No. Not even in June, when the shares were trading at 500% above their initial public offering price. “I generally don’t comment on stock price,” he says, possibly out of genuine humility, or maybe so as not to jinx anything.
Brown prefers to hold forth about the meatlike substances he’s been working on for more than 10 years, breaking plant materials down into their component parts—amino acids, lipids, minerals—and then rebuilding them to mimic the structure of animal flesh. He’ll identify the five necessary sensory experiences: fat, flavor, aroma, appearance, and texture. “Meat is these five components,” he says. “What the animal is doing is organizing plant material.” Instead of using cows to turn plants into burgers, Beyond uses a system of heating, cooling, and pressure. The result is a raw, reddish-brown patty that’s closer to animal meat in taste and texture than any freezer-aisle predecessor.
Brown is also eager to discuss Beyond Meat’s “rapid and relentless innovation” that keeps it churning out prototypes. The latest beef iterations, Brown says, approach a true burger’s “heterogeneity of the bite” (or, in more vegan-triggering terms, the “variety of tissue”). Its burger includes cocoa butter for a marbled texture, apple extract for red-to-brown color transition, and a protein blend made from peas, mung beans, and rice. It improves on the last version, but it’s not exactly mirroring beef. In raw form, it’s stickier and smells a little off; on the grill or in a pan, it cooks only to medium and doesn’t shrink like a real burger. Brown knows the product isn’t quite there yet; he says it’s 65% to 70% there.
But back to the stock price, which everyone wants to talk about even if Brown doesn’t. For investors and rivals, the name Beyond Meat is shorthand for the whole industry. It’s the star of a movement that for decades has been trying and failing to take vegan products mainstream. The frozen-hockey-puck veggie patties of yore haven’t gone away, they’re just not where the action is. Kellogg Co.’s MorningStar Farms is still No. 1 in meatless burgers, but its share is shrinking. Beyond and a long line of competitors are battling it out to make the best product and amass the most restaurant and retail customers. Somehow, in a year that saw IPOs from Uber, Lyft, Slack, and Pinterest, the breakout star has been a company making fake meat.
Not so long ago, consumer food choices were understood to be driven by taste, price, and convenience. They’re why Big Macs and sandwich meats were such enduring American staples, despite headline after headline linking red and processed meats to everything from obesity to cancer to premature death. Today, health is a top concern for many consumers—from millennials looking for “organic” and “natural” labels to older Americans worried about cardiovascular health and diabetes. Concern for the environment is also beginning to influence purchasing decisions, especially among younger shoppers.
Plant-based foods check both the health and environment boxes, or at least that’s the perception. Almost a third of consumers surveyed by Mintel Group Ltd. last year said they considered plant-based burgers healthier than the animal kind. As awareness of beef’s environmental impact spreads—livestock accounts for about 14.5% of man-made greenhouse gases, about 41% of them from beef—vegan alternatives become even more appealing. Retail sales bear out these changing attitudes, with meat substitutes hitting $895 million in the U.S. for the year ended May 25, according to data from Nielsen Holdings Plc. That’s tiny next to the $90 billion in sales for actual meat, and growth may slow if consumers notice faux meat’s calories. But to investors it’s just the start.
This year, major food companies have announced plans to enter the meat-alternative market or expand their offerings in it. Nestlé SA has a soy- and wheat-based Incredible Burger in Europe (already in McDonald’s in Germany), and a pea-based Awesome Burger is coming to the U.S. in September. Conagra Brands Inc.’s Gardein, long a vegetarian favorite, has an improved burger and products for the hot dog and sausage categories on the way. “Gardein’s corn burger platform is underdeveloped,” Conagra’s CEO told investors on a June earnings call, “and we are in the process of creating the next generation of beefless burger.” Maple Leaf Foods Inc.’s Lightlife line, already well known for its veggie hot dogs and sausage, offers raw plant meat in more than 7,500 U.S. stores. Smithfield Foods Inc., the world’s biggest pork producer, has a line of soy-based products on the way. Even Safeway is selling its own raw patties. “I really feel we’re about to enter burger wars,” says Brian Swette, co-founder of Sweet Earth Foods, Nestlé’s plant-based brand.
Beyond’s real competition, though, probably isn’t the major food companies. Rather, it’s Impossible Foods Inc., another California startup producing “bleeding” “beef.” The Impossible Burger, available in roughly 15,000 restaurants and food service locations, according to the company, is another avatar of a theoretically meat-free future. To date, Impossible has raised more than $750 million and is estimated to be valued at $2 billion. That’s a fraction of Beyond’s roughly $9 billion market value (it peaked at just above $14 billion), but both are chasing the same sustainability-minded consumers who want to have their beef and low-carbon lifestyle, too.
Beyond and Impossible are often mistaken for each other—both count Bill Gates as an investor, and both are led by CEOs named Brown (Patrick at Impossible) who like to talk to varying degrees about saving the world. But the companies took very different paths to mass market. Beyond went first into Whole Foods Market and then bigger channels such as Kroger Co. and Safeway; Impossible unveiled its burger in restaurants, starting with celebrity chefs such as David Chang.
Of course, each company claims it has the superior product, and picking a favorite is subjective. But at Bareburger Group LLC, an upscale chain with both burgers on the menu, Impossible outsells Beyond by a 3-to-1 ratio, says founder Euripides Pelekanos. Impossible points to heme, its “magic ingredient,” as the reason its burger is the best fake beef on the market. It says the iron-containing molecule, made from a genetically modified yeast, is what gives its burgers their essential metallic meatiness (think of the iron-heavy taste of blood). After winning U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval in July for retail sales, Impossible Burgers could be in supermarkets as soon as September.
At Beyond, Brown draws attention to his product’s lack of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), a not-so-subtle dig at Impossible’s heme and its primary ingredient, genetically engineered soy. “It would make our jobs a lot easier to be able to genetically modify plant material to make it behave exactly as we want,” he says. But in the company’s early days, when he talked to consumers during samplings at stores, hospitals, and universities, “they made very clear to me what was acceptable,” he says. And GMOs and soy were not.
For now, concern about GMOs isn’t dissuading Impossible’s consumers, chefs, or restaurants, even those who gravitate to natural ingredients. Beyond, though, has the numbers: Its products are sold in more than 53,000 restaurants and other locations, over three times as many as Impossible. And Beyond has another product line that may impress consumers even more than its flagship burger: sausages. “I think the Beyond bratwurst is the closest you’ll ever come to tricking a meat eater,” Pelekanos says. “That sausage is one of the best plant-based meat products out there.”
With Beyond safely in supermarkets and Impossible moving into the mass market, the most high-profile battle of the burger war is happening in restaurant chains. Beyond notched its first major win last year, announcing that its burgers would be available at TGI Fridays from coast to coast in January 2018. A few months later, in April, Impossible landed White Castle, its first fast-food customer. Since then, Beyond has put its meat in Carl’s Jr. and Del Taco, but the biggest win so far goes to Impossible: In August, the Burger King Impossible Whopper went national.
The ultimate prize is McDonald’s. And the expectations for a McBeyond are high. Former McDonald’s Corp. CEO Don Thompson is on Beyond’s board, and Brown was asked during Beyond’s very first earnings call, in June, about the company’s ability to supply the fast-food giant. “I’m assuming you guys drew straws to see who’s gonna ask the McDonald’s question,” he joked, before launching into his explanation about how Beyond will ready itself to produce the number of burgers a McDonald’s-level deal would require. “I don’t see anyone out there that would break our system,” he said.
Impossible, famously, has had some trouble keeping customers supplied. (Bloomberg developed an online Burger Stalker to keep track of which restaurants were holding.) The shortage was first reported the same day the company announced it would launch nationally in Burger Kings. Mission Taco Joint, a small chain based in St. Louis, used to sell Impossible “meat” in its tacos. Then it was jilted. “They kept providing for fast-food chains but stopped for small restaurants,” says Jason Tilford, chef and co-owner. (He switched to Hungry Planet Inc., a maker of meatless alternatives he says is “arguably better than Impossible.”) Soon, White Castle and Red Robin experienced shortages, too. Beyond’s stock price duly rose about 7%.
Adding customers while being unable to serve current ones may seem like a questionable business tactic; a Bloomberg News survey in July found that more than 30% of Impossible’s listed restaurants weren’t serving its product while it was pushing into Burger Kings. About 10% of the restaurants surveyed told Bloomberg News they’d switched to Beyond. But Impossible didn’t believe the shortage was cause to slow down. “We see this as an urgent, short-term problem, and we are quite literally working 24/7 to fix it,” Rachel Konrad, Impossible’s chief communications officer, said in June. She adds that the company doesn’t prioritize chains over independents. In late July the company announced that it had succeeded, thanks to a partnership with global food producer OSI Group that will let it quadruple its rate of production by the end of the year.
Beyond has had its own shortages. Last summer, Beyond Burgers ran out at Canadian fast-food chain A&W Restaurants Inc., just as customers were flocking to buy them. (The desperate search for an A&W Beyond Burger is what led celebrity investor Jessica Chastain to invest in the brand.) But the company says it’s learned from the past. On June 12 it announced a partnership with Canada’s Tim Hortons, putting its sausages in breakfast sandwiches in almost 4,000 locations. The stock jumped 13% that day.
That same week, Freebirds World Burrito, a Texas-based chain, had a message on its website letting customers know it would be out of Beyond Meat products until June 17. Brown insists the hiccup was a result of the company pouring its resources into its fresh products, such as the burger; Freebird uses the beef crumble from the frozen line. “There will be isolated incidents from time to time,” the CEO says. Beyond has been expanding production capacity so that when the big customer comes, the company will be ready.
“Pea protein is an amazing resource for us. It works well, but there’s nothing particularly special about it,” Brown says. “There are so many other stocks we can use—mung bean, brown rice, mustard seed, lentils.” Mung bean is the primary ingredient for the eggless eggs made by Just Inc. The company extols the bean’s gelation, its ability to get a curdlike texture when it mixes with an oil such as canola. Impossible, meanwhile, uses American grown (and genetically modified) soybeans.
Beyond has the production advantage, at least for now. The company uses about 100,000 square feet in two facilities in Columbia, Mo., to produce the “core protein-fat matrix” that gets turned into burgers and sausages. It does some patty-making itself, but most of the mixing, blending, and patty-forming is done by a network of co-packers, five as of June, using machinery that’s nearly identical to what beef processors use. Impossible has a single 68,000-square-foot plant in Oakland running similar equipment 24 hours a day. The recently announced partnership with OSI will expand production, beginning in the Midwest.
Investors point to plant-based milk alternatives—a $1.8 billion business, according to Nielsen—to predict just how big the imitation meat market can grow. But Barb Stuckey, president of Mattson, a food and beverage development company in Silicon Valley, uses it as an example of what happens when demand outstrips manufacturing capacity. For her clients, finding a co-packer for a plant-based beverage now happens before a product is fully developed. “We have multibillion-dollar clients who can’t get line time,” she says. “Even to have a conversation, you need to be producing huge quantities.”
And just as the alterna-milk makers have been fending off fights from Big Dairy over what gets to be labeled “milk,” a similar dynamic is happening with alterna-meat. Legislation is popping up state by state to limit the use of words like “meat” and “sausage” on products that don’t come from slaughtered animals. Litigation is testing whether Mississippi and Arkansas laws will stand up in court—and whether Beyond will need to refrain from putting its full company name, “Beyond Meat,” on its packaging.
The category’s bigger long-term problem, though, may be that the products are less healthy than a lot of people think. “If you compare a Beyond Burger to a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder patty, nutritionally speaking, it’s a wash,” says Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The health benefits of the Beyond Burger, if there are any, would be in a possible lack of increased risks, such as for heart disease, cancer, and premature death, from red meat. But for a day-to-day dieter, “they’re about comparable for calories and saturated fat.”
Consumers finally realizing that the health benefits are, at best, marginal is “one of the largest risks we see,” says Antonio Hernandez, one of the authors of a Barclays report predicting the sector could reach $140 billion in the next 10 years globally. Yet Beyond Burgers are marketed by celebrity athletes, including basketball player Chris Paul. Brown says he drew inspiration from the iconic Got Milk? ads; he wanted to send the same type of message—if you eat this, you’ll feel better, perform better. “A well-designed plant protein can be a superior protein,” says Brown, who’s tall and brawny and calls himself a health nut. He says his burger is missing the cholesterol and carcinogens that come with beef. If Carl’s Jr. wants to load it up with extra mayo, that’s not his fault. “It’s really about the consumer who’s coming in. We can’t control the rest,” he says. “I eat mine with a lettuce wrap.”
If the health halo enjoyed by plant-based food is an illusion, there’s still the green halo. “Sustainability is far higher on the total value proposition,” says Thomas George, president of Grizzle, an investment research company that focuses on millennials. But ultimately, he says, a lot will depend on price. “The biggest part embedded in the share price is that they can eventually price cheaper than beef. If it can be viewed as 90% as tasty as beef and 30% cheaper, that’s the watershed moment here.” —With Leslie Patton, Lydia Mulvany, and Josh Eidelson