Keeping up with evolving protein trends

  • 2 min read

How worried should Canadian livestock producers be about plant-based meat substitutes? 

Plant-based burgers have become a major food trend in just the last couple of years. They’re available in the meat aisle of your local supermarket and they’re heavily promoted by major restaurant chains like A&W, Burger King and Subway. 

Even McDonald’s, a champion for the beef industry in Canada, is testing the market. Ontario was chosen as their worldwide pilot for the P.L.T. burger (plant, lettuce and tomato) involving 28 restaurants in locations such as London and Sarnia. If McDonald’s – with its global footprint – embraces plant-based alternatives in a significant way, supply will have to ramp up dramatically. 

Increased demand for pulses

Pulse crop growers, particularly field pea producers, welcome the growing demand and major pea protein processing facilities are in various stages of being commissioned at locations across the Prairie provinces. 

Food professor Sylvain Charlebois with Dalhousie University in Halifax has followed the “protein wars” closely and has written and presented extensively on the topic. In his view, the rise of plant-based burgers and other meat alternatives is not necessarily negative for the livestock industry. 

It may seem counterintuitive, but when you stop adding competition, margins tend to shrink.

While it’s true that a consumer eating a plant-based burger might be foregoing a meat burger, the new products also cater to consumers who didn’t regularly eat much or any beef. As well, Charlebois believes more choices bring more total sales, a bigger pie. It may seem counterintuitive, but when you stop adding competition, margins tend to shrink.  

More tastes from the butcher block

“The trifecta of meat choices – beef, pork and chicken – has become somewhat boring,” Charlebois says. “We need to bring more excitement to the meat counter.” While he admits the volume of meat sales in North America may slip, he believes that could potentially be offset by prices and margins going up.   

However, the well-travelled food professor has never been comfortable with the strategy of imitating beef. Beef is a pure product without added ingredients and specialized processing. In addition, the beef industry has a strong sustainability story. 

Beef producers are some of the best environment stewards,” Charlebois says, adding that they haven’t been able to effectively make their case. “Is a plant-based burger environmentally better? Is that the right comparison?” asks Charlebois. He would prefer to see the plant protein sector develop products and a marketing approach that stands on its own merits. 

How the marketplace will evolve is anyone’s guess. If Charlebois is correct, there may be no real losers. Ideally, it will be a win for consumers, plant-based protein and traditional meat products. 

From an AgriSuccess article by Kevin Hursh.