The Fake Meat Industry Is Failing, But That Might Lead to Governments Propping It Up

Impossible Foods, manufacturer of plant-based meat alternatives, is laying off 20 percent of its workforce. This will be the third wave of layoffs at Impossible in just the last year, and marks another wretched milestone for the beleaguered company which has continually failed to justify its own hype.

The fresh round of cuts was reported on Monday by Bloomberg, citing an unnamed source. If the cuts go as deep as the source claims, around 140 of the company’s 700 staff will go. The move comes off the back of attempts to reduce the company’s headcount through voluntary buyouts. So far, the company has not responded.

Impossible Foods maintains it is simply streamlining its business so that it can continue to “hyper grow”. A number of key executives have left the company over the past year, and former CEO Pat Brown is on leave until the spring. Brown’s replacement, Peter McGuinness, is trying to make the company fight smarter, with a particular focus on breaking down negative consumer perceptions of his company’s products.

This new strategy has included taking out a full-page advert in the New York Times to counter claims that plant-based meat alternatives are “just another fad”. The move came in response to a Bloomberg Businessweek cover story on the flagging fortunes of the industry.

The story, published in September, noted that “just a few years ago… plant-based meats were ascendant,” but “now, after once enjoying double-digit growth, sales in the plant-based meat category are not just flat but declining.”

Sales Down the Pan

Sales of refrigerated meat alternatives were down 10.5 percent for the year to September 4th 2022, according to the Bloomberg cover story.

Industry experts have blamed a number of factors. One is the growing cost-of-living crisis, which has driven consumers back to real meat, which remains cheaper.

Public perception remains a significant problem. In July, Deloitte conducted a survey which revealed a decline in the belief that plant-based meat alternatives are healthier and more ethical than real meat. A 2021 survey of Australian men suggested that over 70 percent of them would rather die ten years sooner than give up eating meat. And that survey was conducted by a pro-fake meat group.

There has also, apparently, been a growing backlash against the “woke” status of plant-based meat alternatives. As Bloomberg reported:

“Deloitte also suspects that the addressable market may be more limited than previously thought with a growing cultural resistance to its “woke” status — even among those seeking to reduce red meat consumption. Case in point: When Cracker Barrel announced plans to add Impossible Foods’ sausage to its menu over the summer, it faced an onslaught of criticism on social media.”

Despite indications to the contrary, Impossible CEO McGuinness maintains that his company has been able to buck the general trend for plant-based meat alternatives, with growth in retail sales of 70 percent in 2022.

Other manufacturers are having a harder time disguising their troubles. Shares in Beyond Meat plunged 75 percent in the first three quarters of last year. Like Impossible, the company has been forced to slash its workforce by almost 20 percent, with 200 employees losing their jobs.

Beyond Meat experienced high-profile failure last year, when its much-touted pilot collaboration with McDonald’s, the “McPlant” burger, was not continued by the fast-food giant.

Beyond Meat has also had to deal with a number of scandals that have harmed its image. The first was a bizarre incident last September involving the company’s COO, Doug Ramsey, who was arrested for allegedly biting another man’s nose in a parking lot after a football game. He was also charged with making a “terroristic threat” after the incident.

Ramsey was immediately suspended when news broke, and then left the company in early October, before his scheduled hearing with the Fayetteville District Court. He had spent 30 years working for Tyson Foods before joining Beyond Meat as its COO in late 2021.

In November, a whistleblower at a Beyond Meat plant in Pennsylvania revealed photos of mold in and around food-production and storage equipment, and also documents showing that products from the plant had tested positive for listeria, a harmful bacteria, at least eleven times over the previous year.

Beyond Meat was forced to issue a statement that its hygiene standards go “above and beyond industry and regulatory standards” and that the company was “in good standing with Pennsylvania’s Department of Agriculture.”

Is Fake Meat Dead Meat?

While our first instinct might be to cheer the latest bad news from the fake-food industry, reports of its demise are greatly exaggerated. Billions have been poured into plant-based and alternative meats and they have the full moral and institutional backing of the scientific, political, and cultural establishments. Fake foods aren’t going anywhere, sadly.

Majority or entirely plant-based diets are held up as the future of food, indeed as a new “global diet”, by everybody from reformed drug addict Robert Downey Jr. – who as a vegan now looks half the man he did just a few years before – to institutions like the Lancet, the United Nations, and of course the World Economic Forum.

So although an individual player, like Impossible or Beyond Meat, or even multiple players, may crash out of the market, this actually means very little about the future of fake food as a whole. A cursory glance at a list of new startups, or the latest round of investments by a venture capitalist like Paul Graham, will reveal umpteen new companies in every segment of the fake-food industry, from plant-based meat alternatives to cell-cultured – i.e. lab-grown – meat.

It’s not just about new companies either. The world’s largest meat-producing corporations, like JBS and Tyson, are aggressively pushing into the new “ownership envelopes” of fake food by restructuring themselves and acquiring salmon-aquaculture farms, pea-protein companies and insect farms. These mega-players are rebranding themselves not as purveyors of particular foodstuffs – meat or dairy – but instead as purveyors of the most desirable macronutrient of them all, protein. Tyson, for instance, has already trademarked the term “the Protein Company”. In a real sense, like the banks in 2007, the fake food sector is on the verge of becoming “too big to fail”, if it hasn’t already acquired that status.

Advocates of these fake foods are changing their strategy to increase adoption. They know well enough by now that they will not get the public to eat their products simply by making appeals to taste and nutrition. We know that a “burger” made from soy protein and sunflower oil, or a “plant-based egg” made from a slop of mung-beans and canola oil, with untold artificial flavourings, colourings and texturisers, will never be the real thing, let along taste or nourish us as well as the real thing. We are not stupid or so divorced from our instincts as human beings. Not yet, anyway. Scientific studies have already shown that appeals to taste and nutrition fall totally flat with consumers.

What doesn’t fall flat, though, is social pressure.

As one study concludes, “highlighting the social benefits of plant-based menu items would convince more consumers to choose them over meat-based options.” Basically, consumers must be bashed around the head at every opportunity with the virtues of eating plant-based alternatives – and of course the evils of animal agriculture (cow farts, water use, land that could otherwise be used to grow soy, etc.).

Shame is already a powerful part of advertising campaigns for plant-based products. Take, for instance, the revolting “Help Dad” campaign, by “oat-milk” brand Oatly, in which hapless fathers are shamed by their “enlightened” children for wanting to drink a glass of real milk.

Inflation and the cost-of-living crisis are also being leveraged to move consumers away from eating animal products. Last summer, In a remarkable op-ed for the New York Times entitled, “You want to buy meat? In this economy?”, Annaliese Griffin stated, quite baldly, that “inflation has the potential to drive welcome change for the planet if Americans think differently about the way they eat.” After noting that “historically, cost has been a powerful force that has changed Americans’ diets”, Griffin even went so far as to praise the 1917 Lever Act, which allowed the federal government to requisition food from the public to prevent hoarding.

Although we’ve yet to see direct government intervention to get to people to abandon animal products, the craziness of the last three years should warn us not to believe anything is impossible – except Impossible turning a profit.

Reporting from The National Pulse.