A Stampede of Meatless Products Overrun Grocery Store Meat Cases

Author:  Paul Shapiro
Source: Wall Street Journal

The “Beyond Meat” patties that offended Mr. Kendig were made with pea protein, canola oil, coconut oil, potato starch and “natural flavor.” They’re part of a posse of look-alikes invading meat country—from plant-based burgers that ooze “blood” at first bite to chicken strips grown in a tank from poultry cells.

For thousands of years, meat came from slaughtered animals, and milk was squeezed from cows. Tech-style disruptions are now upending supermarket meat cases and turning the stomach of cattle ranchers like Mr. Kendig.

He and other old-school protein purveyors consider the meat section their turf, a private reserve of steaks and chops with one thing in common—a butchered animal carcass.

American cattle ranchers are dismayed to find the meat replacements sold next to the real thing. “Right in our beef case,” grumbled Mr. Kendig, who raises about 300 cattle near Osborne, Kan.

High-tech startups are building burgers from plant proteins and compounds that grill and taste more like the real thing than old-fashioned veggie burgers.

Other firms are using cell-culture technology to grow animal muscle tissue—otherwise known as meat—in stainless steel bioreactor tanks, similar to the fermentors used to brew beer.

Even dairy cows are feeling the squeeze, with consumer milk sales threatened by an ocean of substitute “milk” made from nuts, peas and oats. The National Milk Producers Federation has protested beverages made from potato, pistachio, duckweed, canary grass seed and other greenery bearing the “milk” moniker.

Cattlemen and dairy farmers are saddling up, and lawyering up, in response. The U.S. Cattlemen’s Association has petitioned the Agriculture Department to bar plant-based products from bearing labels that say “beef” or “meat,” with similar restrictions on meat grown from animal cells. Missouri this month passed a similar law, and the Good Food Institute, which promotes meat alternatives, plans a legal challenge.

Dairy farmers, meantime, are lobbying the Food and Drug Administration, which supervises milk labels. The milk producers federation is pushing a bill, the “Dairy Pride Act,” to enforce rules that the word “milk” on labels only refer to the output of lactating animals.

Stakes are high for the roughly $200 billion U.S. meat market. Sales of alternative meat products account for less than 1% of fresh meat sales in the U.S. but are growing at an annual rate of 24.5%, according to Nielsen Total Food View. Sales of plant-based “milk” climbed 7% over the past year, while conventional milk sales declined by 4%.

High-tech upstarts say the proposed labeling rules are a poor defense, pointing out that on a molecular level, plant-based meat products can contain the same amino acids, fats and minerals as animal flesh.

“People don’t get angry when you call your cellphone a phone,” said Ethan Brown, chief executive of Beyond Meat.