Plant-Based Battle: Beyond Meat's CEO Pleads for Unity in Beleaguered Sector

Ethan Brown's comments at Vegan Women Summit come as the industry faces sales slump and image problems

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The plant-based meat industry, faced with sales drops and image problems, has already identified its most outspoken foes, namely well-organized, deep-pocketed Big Pharma and Big Beef.

But those aren’t the only critics of the startup food sector, according to Ethan Brown, CEO of Beyond Meat, who said that some “hard-core vegans” are aligned with those same agricultural concerns and drug makers in trying to sour consumers on meat alternatives

Not only is the call coming from inside the house, to borrow a horror movie metaphor, but Brown said the smack talk from these “strange bedfellows” is putting the future of the faux meat industry at risk.

“We have people attacking us, and if we turn to each other and say, ‘You can only have legumes, you can’t have plant-based meat because it’s quite processed,’ we’re going to lose,” Brown said. “You are harming the entire movement to transition meat away from animals if you keep saying that.”

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Appearing at the recent Vegan Women Summit (VWS) in Los Angeles, which attracted more than 1,000 participants and brand sponsors such as Nature’s Fynd, Violife, Dr. Bronner’s and Chella beauty, Brown made a plea for unity on behalf of his company and others in the space. 

“We have a battle on our hands, and we can’t fight amongst each other, we have to come together,” Brown said. “The merchants of doubt are out in full force—they’re selling fear, they are putting out propaganda that is designed to scare consumers away from making this change. It’s insidious.”

Brown didn’t point to any vegans by name, though he did mention bestselling author and documentarian Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Cooked, Food, Inc. 2), who has often railed against processed food of all types. “Eat plants, not food made in plants,” is a classic Pollan mantra.

Brown, in conversation with VWS founder Jennifer Stojkovic, said plant-based eaters have “got to stop being purists” and start fighting back against misinformation from the entrenched food lobbies. 

Stalled coalition

Brown’s keynote session comes after months of discussion among plant-based food brands about creating a coalition that, at least on a business level, could provide a unified front. The group under consideration would be similar to those behind renowned marketing campaigns like “Got Milk?,” “The Incredible Edible Egg” and “Pork, the Other White Meat.”

But despite interest from a number of prominent marketers, including Impossible Foods CEO Peter McGuinness, there’s still no formal group. (Though even McGuinness himself, in describing a crowded and messy sector, appeared to take a jab at fungi- and mycelium-based products in a recent Food Dive interview.)

There are at least a few potential reasons why the coalition concept hasn’t gelled, according to Pete Speranza, CEO of Wicked Kitchen, who has been involved in many of the talks.

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The financial climate, with investment drying up for companies in the space, and ongoing inflation are no doubt having an impact, keeping companies focused on their own bottom lines rather than devoting time and resources to boost the industry as a whole, Speranza said.

On a more niche level, Wicked Kitchen, its sister brand Good Catch and 34 other marketers have formed the Future Ocean Foods Association, which supports the alternative seafood industry.

Price tag

The idea of a broader coalition for plant-based players isn’t necessarily dead. But difficult questions remain, many revolving around leadership and funding such a project, along with any public service announcements or other advertising that would come from it.

“People would still like to do it––the sentiment is there,” Speranza said. “But I don’t know if anybody has figured out a financial mechanism, and I haven’t seen anybody take the reins and own it.”

Also, Speranza and others have predicted an industry shakeout coming, in which the tough retail and investor climate will cull some smaller, less successful brands. 

In the meantime, consumer interest has waned after explosive growth during 2020’s pandemic. Overall sales of plant-based food has dipped 4.4% this year to $7.3 billion, per retail intelligence firm Spins. 

Spins cited premium prices for the products, particularly meat alternatives, along with consumer concerns about processing and ingredients as key factors. (Faux meat sales have decreased 27% in the fresh and frozen aisles combined, to just north of $1 billion, per Circana data for the 52 weeks ending in early January.)

Beyond Meat, a pioneer in the space, recently reported its eighth straight quarter of revenue declines. In response to a question from Stojkovic about the company’s journey since its record-breaking IPO in 2019, Brown described it as “mixed.” The stock price is currently listed at $8.

On a recent earnings call, Brown predicted 2024 will be a “pivotal year for change and progress,” as the company continues to refine its existing products and launch new health-focused ones. 

The fourth generation of its flagship ground beef substitute, rolling out now, has trimmed the ingredient list from 18 to 17, cut saturated fat by 60% and amped the veggie content with red lentils and fava beans. But with a higher price tag, consumer adoption is yet to be determined.

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