IT IS LESS ubiquitous than Airbnb and less hubristic than Uber. But Beyond Meat, which goes public on May 2nd, shares with those firms—and with many other tech outfits expected to list this year—a Californian address and a grand, disruptive ambition. In one sense, Beyond Meat is the boldest of the lot. Changing the way people book accommodation and cars seems trifling next to changing what they eat.
Beyond Meat makes what it calls “plant-based meat products”, and what most people call veggie burgers and veggie sausages. Unlike some rival products, which are merely hamburger-shaped, Beyond Meat’s patties resemble the real thing. Throw one in a hot frying pan and it will turn from pink to brown while sizzling. Social media are full of tales of committed meat-eaters unable to distinguish it from the real thing.
They are the firm’s target market. Only about 5% of Americans describe themselves as vegetarians, and it is not clear why they would want to eat something that closely resembles animal flesh. Carve a slice off the gigantic meat trade, though, and you might have a good business. Look at what has happened to milk, says Beyond Meat’s prospectus. Non-dairy versions made from almonds, soya and other things are now one-eighth the size of the dairy milk market in America. Non-flesh meat could grab a similar share of the meat market, or perhaps an even larger one.
A powerful environmental case can be made for the stuff, argues Beyond Meat’s founder and boss, Ethan Brown. The livestock industry is a planetary thug. It is thought to account for about 15% of greenhouse-gas emissions, if you count the forests that are felled to create fields for growing animal feed, the methane in cow farts and the fuel that is burned moving everything around. Farm animals hog enormous amounts of land and pollute the water.
Yet Beyond Meat might stick in investors’ gullets, for several reasons. First, the company has yet to make a profit. Second, it is not the only company trying to cut into the meat business. Another Californian outfit, Impossible Foods, sells its plant-based products through Burger King, among others. Several start-ups are trying to grow meat in vats. They could all end up trying to eat each others’ lunches, or cutting into the sales of venerable outfits like Quorn. It was possible to order veggie burgers at Burger King before the Impossible Whopper came along.
Third, it is not obvious that more people are hungry for alternatives to meat. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the average American is eating more beef, pork and chicken than a couple of years ago. Britain’s Family Food survey shows a rise in meat consumption between 2015 and 2016-17 (the most recent period for which data exists). The parallel with non-dairy milk seems dubious. Many people sip soya milk not because they disapprove of dairy products or want to save the planet, but because they are lactose intolerant.
Finally, the meat industry has seen the challengers coming. In several American states, and in France, legislators have written laws reserving the word “meat” for animal products. In Nebraska, the effort has been led by a state senator with the wonderful name of Carol Blood. This is historically illiterate: “meat” has for centuries meant not just animal flesh but solid food in general, hence “sweetmeats” and Mercutio’s description of an egg as “full of meat” in “Romeo and Juliet”. But the livestock lobby is powerful. Polluting industries tend to be that way.
This post was originally posted at https://www.economist.com/business/2019/05/01/can-the-veggie-burger-company-change-eating-habits-before-it-goes-bust.