Rather than seeing the rise of meat alternatives as a threat, livestock producers should look at it as an opportunity to become more innovative in how they approach marketing and consumer outreach, according to a panelist who participated in a recent webinar hosted by the Center for Food Integrity.
"We have to focus on the 'why,' not the what," said Ujwal Arkalgud, a cultural anthropologist and co-founder and CEO of MotivBase, a consumer research firm that uses big data to gain insight on consumer trends.
The alternative meat movement is being driven by consumer desire to do something perceived as benefiting society and the planet, he said. Consumers want to feel like they are making ethical, sustainable choices, he added.
"A lot of the questions consumers are raising open doors and offer opportunities for the traditional protein industry to think about innovation," he said.
As an example, he described a retailer that is now providing customers with information on which farm a cut of meat came from, how the animal was raised and what it was fed.
"So if I (as a consumer) feel like everything is happening behind closed doors, that might be a solution that eliminates my need to go to alternatives," he said.
On the other hand, if a shopper's primary concern is excessive processing of food, "maybe a cut of meat becomes quite exciting or quite comforting," he added.
"The point I want to leave everybody with is there are opportunities for innovation on both sides of the aisle," he said referring to conventional meat and alternative proteins. "Right now alt-protein is riding a bit of a high, but it will slow down and then (that industry) will have to be ready to deal with the same challenges traditional protein is dealing with now."
"If you just track media attention to the ingredients in plant-based burgers, in the last six months it's been slowly growing," he added. "Consumers are starting to ask the same questions about it as they do about traditional sources of protein."
Charlie Arnot, the center's chief executive officer and host of the webinar, asked two executives from White Castle, an Ohio-based fast food chain that sells the plant-based Impossible Burger, whether they had received questions regarding the amount of processing that goes into next generation veggie burgers or their nutritional content.
Jamie Richardson, White Castle's vice president of corporate relations, said the customer response had been overwhelmingly positive so far.
"We've encountered glee about us just having the option available," he said.
In particular, he said customers appreciated the Impossible slider being priced affordably enough to feed the whole family. The sandwich sells for $1.99 each.
Scalability and marketing reach that lead to more affordable products is what Tyson brings to the table as one of the companies currently developing meat alternatives, said David Ervin, Tyson's vice president of alternative proteins.
"We have the processing power to bring this important initiative to the masses, and really look at this in a way that can be cost-efficient and still deliver what consumers are looking for," he said.
New products in the pipeline at Tyson include a blended Angus beef product, made half from plants and half from real beef. The blended product has 60 percent less fat and 40 percent less calories than pure ground beef, he said, adding, "It's super-lean but super delicious."
Tyson is also working on a new sausage blend made with grains and vegetables, and nuggets made from plant sources, both of which will be promoted for their high fiber content, he said.
By getting involved in the trend, Tyson is able to tap into something he called "plant positivity."
"There's a positive halo around plants," he said.
The White Castle executives said they weren't seeking to pit the advantages of one sandwich against another but simply wanted to offer more variety to their customers.
"It's about choice," said Shannon Tolliver, manager of social responsibility and environmental sustainability for the century-old hamburger chain. "We have to listen to what our customers are telling us."
The Center for Food Integrity, based in Kansas City, is a nonprofit that provides education and resources to help food industry players build consumer confidence and trust. Its membership includes food retailers, agribusinesses and producer groups.
After examining trends in consumer confidence over the past decade, the big shifts the center has identified include an erosion of trust in large institutions and corporations, significant differences in where various consumer segments source food information and a growing interest in the relationship between diet and health.