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Grilled or smoked chicken breast with bone and skin on a cutting board

Plant-Based Meat Startups Have Cracked Beef, But What About Chicken?

July 4, 2019

Plant-based ground beef has become a staple at several fast food restaurants across the US. Now food retailers are demanding other alternatives, but creating viable plant-based alternatives for other food types like dairy, seafood, muscle cuts, and poultry could prove trickier.

Impossible Foods has already started warning retailers like Burger King and Red Robin that shortages of its Impossible Burger patty are impending. The plant-based food maker recently raised $300 million in a Blockbuster funding round in the wake of Beyond Meat’s hugely successful IPO, signaling to many that the plant-based segment is here to stay.

The market for plant-based products could even reach $21.3 billion in value by as soon as 2025, according to recent research.

In January 2019, the company came out with its Impossible Burger 2.0, which promises a richer, beefier taste that is more akin to higher-quality meats. It also announced a new collaboration with Little Ceasars to create an Impossible Supreme Pizza.

Since launching nationwide partnerships with these restaurant chains, Impossible Foods has been struggling to keep up as consumers are eager to see what all the plant-based buzz is about. Arguably, this is a good problem to have for a new food product that had many carnivores raising their eyebrows in skepticism over whether the soy protein-based burger was a tasty alternative.

Meanwhile, Carl’s Jr., TGI Friday’s, White Castle, college campuses, and all offer Beyond Meat’s competing Beyond Burger. The now-public company also recently announced the launch of a new ground beef product to be sold at supermarkets that is versatile enough to be used in any recipe that calls for ground beef. 

It also announced its own Burger 2.0 product, perhaps in a rebuttal to Impossible Foods’ own 2.0 launch, a new burger patty featuring coconut oil and cocoa butter that creates a marbling effect and that mimics the texture of real meat more accurately.

Yet, a number of restaurants have taken a clear stance against adding plant-based offerings to their menus. Arby’s said it won’t add plant-based fare at any point in the future, while Taco Bell recently announced that it’s going to focus on bolstering its vegetarian offerings in lieu of adding a plant-based line-up despite Del Taco selling two million plant-based tacos nationwide in less than two months. 

Shake Shack has also signaled that it has no intention of going plant-based, while the world’s leading fast food restaurant McDonald’s has also remained on the plant-based sidelines.

Regardless, demand for plant-based alternatives is clearly on the rise. But what happens if plant-based product makers can’t deliver the same level of substitutes for trickier products like muscle cuts of beef, poultry, seafood, and dairy? Will investors slow their appetite for plant-based products and will customers take this as a sign that they’re better off continuing their consumption of the real deals?

Where’s the poultry?

There’s far more to meat products than ground beef, but the category seems to be the primary focus for many plant-based meat developers. While beef-centric restaurants are reaping the benefits, menus built around poultry are starting to feel a bit left out. 

“I don’t think there’s anything more difficult with plant-based poultry compared to ground beef,” Good Food Institute food scientist MJ Kinney told AFN. “What happened is that Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods decided to validate consumers’ willingness to purchase plant-based meat so they went after a classic American food: the burger.”

With the popularity of plant-based beef apparent, a number of poultry-focused fast food chains and food manufacturers are hoping that plant-based poultry will soon have its breakthrough moment. Chik-fil-A, which is making big strides in growth and sales among the fast food segment, is searching for a plant-based protein substitute that it can add to its menu. KFC is also working with several plant-based product creators to find vegan-friendly options and has already started offering a vegetarian fried chicken option in the UK.

Tyson Foods, which sold its shares of Impossible Food to pursue its own line of plant-based ingredients, launched its private label plant-based poultry line called Raised & Rooted featuring plant-based chicken nuggets made from pea protein, egg white, bamboo, and golden flaxseed. Chicken nuggets are a logical first foray into plant-based poultry based on the consistency. 

Perdue Farms, another leading poultry producer, also debuted a line of poultry products that blends real chicken and vegetables in a bid to convince Americans to eat more vegetables. It could be a key product for uncompromising carnivores who want to capture some benefits of eating more plant-based foods.

Achieving muscle cuts like chicken breast or thighs could be much more challenging, but according to Kinney the technology is already in place. 

“I don’t think it will be harder to make poultry than beef. We will see plant-based poultry products–we have to. It’s something that consumers want and it can be made using the current production methods and processes that make beef alternatives,” Kinney explains. “What will be more difficult is if you want to go after whole muscle meat.”

Some startups are racing toward commercialization using a variety of technologies. Sunfed Meats recently debuted a “wild meaty chunks” chicken-free plant-based poultry alternative made from yellow peas in New Zealand. Just like plant-based beef’s beginnings in ground meat, plant-based chicken is also starting with nuggets and chunks due to the challenges in achieving the same texture and mouthfeel of muscle cuts like chicken breast, thighs, and even wings.

“Chicken nuggets are a great example of how plant-based poultry will actually be easier than beef because textured vegetable protein ingredients, which often are extruded from soy, pea, wheat, or any kind of flour, inherently taste like chicken. The reason beef happened first is simply because burgers are so symbolic of America.”

Now, Impossible Foods is setting its sights on plant-based fish, describing the R&D effort as a “particularly high priority” in its Impact Report 2019. Startup New Wave Foods has already been hot on the alternative seafood trail, attempting to create an algae-based shrimp alternative.

And as far as recent criticisms claiming that plant-based foods are simply highly-processed products containing GMO ingredients, Kinney is quite comfortable with the idea.

“As a food scientist, I am a big admirer of processed food and will advocate for it all day. It makes food available at cost and with the convenience that consumers want. It makes it safe and safety is the bottom online for any commercial food offering,” she explains. “It can make food more digestible and nutritious.”

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