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Big meat companies are facing a huge dilemma in dealing with plant-based alternatives: Consumers want to try them out, so they might as well have some offerings, but at the same time they clearly need to keep building their legacy animal products businesses.
So they are taking two approaches, often simultaneously. At the same time they are investing in and developing side businesses in plant-based alternatives, meat giants also are finding ways to put their existing products into plant-substitute contexts by creating hybrid options.
Ingredient applications are a growing market for them. Hormel, for instance, in 2019 launched its Happy Little Plants pizza toppings, “a growing category that we are leaders in and know really well,” says Colby Strilaeff, foodservice pizza topping brand manager.
But challenges for plant-based options crop up even in pizza ingredients where they can be masked. Domino’s, for instance, has looked at meat analogues for its pizza ingredients but so far hasn’t introduced any.
“No matter what you do, people still need to like it,” says Domino’s CEO Russell Weiner. “That’s what our job is going to be. If we make something that may scientifically look better on paper, but people don’t like the taste of it, they’re not going to buy it. “
Overcoming remaining hurdles in taste and texture, as well as mitigating the high costs of plant-based ingredients, are reasons more companies are taking a “hybrid” approach to the market. Perdue, for instance, introduced a Chicken Plus line in 2019 that blends cauliflower, chickpeas, and other vegetable-based ingredients with no-antibiotics-ever white meat chicken, partnering with The Better Meat Co. to develop the products. Now, Perdue sells Chicken Plus in “dino nuggets, “tots,” and “tenders” forms.
While Hormel also now has a development partnership with The Better Meat Co., two subsidiaries of the Austin, Minn.–based giant didn’t wait. Its Burke division introduced a flexitarian product line of meat “crumbles,” one type consisting of 70% beef/30% mushroom and another that is 70% pork/30% cauliflower.
And Hormel’s Applegate Farms launched Well Carved “blended” products, which include organic burgers and meatballs with pairings of meat, vegetables, legumes, and grains and what the company calls “a transparent ingredient list avoiding many of the questionable ingredients found in heavily processed plant-protein alternatives.”
Much-publicized market stumbles are triggering doubts about the potential of this onetime darling of investors, activists, and curious consumers. What’s it going to take to get it back on track? Read more in Food Technology's February 2023 feature article "Rebuilding Plant-Based Meat."
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