Increasing hype surrounding meat alternatives had already been identified as a priority concern by cattle industry leaders even before Colorado Governor Jared Polis caused a stir by treating his agriculture department staff to plant-based Impossible Burgers at an event in mid-August.
Even so, many cattle producers attending a ranch gathering last week near Ft. Morgan seemed to consider plant-based substitutes as more of a flash-in-the-pan rather than a lasting trend with any real potential to up-end their business.
"I'm not at all worried about it," said Donna Thompson, who along with her husband is retired from ranching in Texas and now lives near Elizabeth, Colo.
While she considers beef a great product that can stand on its own merit, she did express concern about how effective environmentalists had been at disparaging beef's environmental record.
Duane Yearous, who was hosting the field day, expressed concern about that too, adding that he considers alternative proteins "a novelty concept" boosted by "marketing and perception."
With domestic beef consumption currently at around 55 pounds per capita, demand for beef remains strong and consumers clearly like eating it, he said. However, he believes the environmental benefits of beef production have been undersold.
"Cattle are some of the best recyclers there are," he said. "We can't tell that story enough."
At the same time, he questioned whether anyone had ever actually studied the carbon footprint of an imitation plant burger and wondered why that wasn't getting more attention.
The Impossible Burger reportedly contains 21 ingredients, including soy and potato protein, coconut and sunflower oils, yeast extract and a binding agent called methylcellulose.
As Yearous walked among the cows and calves he had on display, he said that although he grew up showing cattle and enjoyed it, selling commercial herd bulls is what pays the bills.
To help maintain the commercial focus, he follows some of his cattle all the way through to the processing phase, and even direct-markets a few head as corn-fed non-implanted freezer beef.
"It's building," he said of that venture. "The rest are harvested at Cargill, and we get all the carcass data back on them."
With so much effort going into improving beef quality, the idea that real beef would ever become obsolete was hard to comprehend for many at the gathering.
Among them was Wes Stribling, a Merck sales representative from Rye, who was standing at a big iron smoker grilling sausages from nearby Hudson Locker and choice-grade steaks purchased at the Keene Market in Keenesburg.
Though CCA executive director Terry Fankhauser and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue have both sampled Impossible Burgers to see what the industry is up against, Stribling had zero interest in performing due diligence.
"It's not something I'm ever going to eat," he said with a grin.
(For the record, Fankhauser said he wasn't impressed.)
While beef devotees don't see plant-derived proteins replacing the real thing anytime soon, long-time market analysts say meat industry execs have long sought to distance themselves from the liabilities and consumer distaste associated with livestock slaughter and see credible meat alternatives as a potential boon to their business.
The founder of Impossible Foods, Pat Brown, has made no secret of his mission to eliminate animal agriculture by 2035. Outside research firms predict adoption will happen more slowly, although the figures are still sobering. One firm predicts a third of all protein will be plant-based by 2054. Another pegs global market growth at a compound annual rate of more than 6 percent, indicating plant-based alternatives have the potential to chip away at beef export demand as well as domestic markets.
Nowhere would a beefless burger seem more out of place than Ft. Morgan, which is home to some of the largest cattle feedlots and meatpacking plants in the world.
Actually it's one of the few towns in Eastern Colorado where you can get an Impossible Burger, courtesy of the Burger King located right off the interstate next to Walmart.
A cashier behind the counter there described the Impossible Whopper as a popular seller, even though it is priced about $1.50 higher than a regular burger. In fact, she said, the plant-based burgers have been so popular they sometimes sell out before the next shipment arrives.