Los Angeles resident Angel Izard says she’s been eating a lot more meatless meat since March, when her county issued a stay-at-home order. She now cooks most of her meals at home, and says Beyond Burgers, a brand of meat substitute burgers known for its realistic texture, is her go-to. Izard guesses she eats two or three times as many Beyond Burgers as she did before the pandemic.
“We’re all at home now. So instead of going out to eat a couple days a week with my coworkers, I am pretty much eating at home 24/7, especially because restaurants are closed, too.”
And though it’s not the main reason, Izard says she’s eating more meat substitute products because she has concerns about the social and environmental implications of regular meat consumption.
“I think animal meat is kind of disgusting when you think about it,” she says. “I think if anything, we learned from this pandemic that the more you stick to just things that are grown from the ground, the more likely you are to not get sick.”
Meatless meat has become quite popular among younger consumers in urban areas, and some big names are cashing in on the trend. This month, fast-food chain KFC announced it was adding meatless chicken nuggets to its menus in Southern California. Other household names like Burger King and Starbucks also offer meatless options.
Journalist Chloe Sorvino, who covers the meatless industry for Forbes, says sales of meat substitutes have shot up by more than $100 million since the start of the pandemic.
She says there are some simple economic reasons for the spike. Meat prices have increased during the pandemic due to reduced imports, and this has pushed up demand for other options. But she also says the pandemic has revealed the darker side of the meat industry.
Sorvino points to the string of coronavirus outbreaks that have emerged at meatpacking plants throughout the country, which she says brought the brutal conditions faced by meat workers, such as grueling hours and crowded factory lines, to public attention. Despite this, President Trump signed an executive order in April requiring these plants to stay open, citing the need to keep the meat supply undisturbed.
“Americans were confronted with the ugly truths of our food system that so many of them have been able, because of their privilege, to ignore or turn a blind eye to for so long,” she says.
Sorvino says the rise in meat substitute sales may also be an unintended consequence of fear-mongering by the meat industry. On April 26, John Tyson, chairman of America’s largest meat producer Tyson Foods, took out full-page ads in a number of national newspapers, including The New York Times, warning Americans that “the food supply chain is breaking” as a result of the pandemic.
But Sorvino says this has not proved to be the case, and that the warning was likely just “a cry for the government to step in and take liability off the meat packers.” The Department of Justice has now opened an investigation into alleged price-fixing practices at major meat producers, and separately announced price-rigging charges against four chicken industry executives last month.
Meanwhile, business is booming for the meatless industry. David Lee, CFO of Impossible Foods, says his company had been doing well even before the pandemic, but sales are now soaring.
“We’ve been sprinting because meat eaters have for a long time wanted a better product, a product that has all the great aspects of taste but are better for their health and better products for the world.”