Vegetarian burgers are co-mingled with animal burgers in a freezer section at Costco. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

No longer is it like a scavenger hunt to find vegetarian and vegan foods in a grocery store. While that is good news for the producers and consumers of these products, the traditional meat and dairy industries are less than thrilled with this reality.

Industry experts say the change is driven by two main factors. One is people wanting alternatives to animal products for health and environmental reasons. The other driving force is greater variety of non-meat choices, with flavors and textures often mimicking animal products.

“Our most recent data that covered the 2020 grocery year shows plant based food sales were up another 27 percent. That has been the way it has been year-over-year for the last six or seven years with tremendous double digit growth,” said Michael Robbins, who handles policy for the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA). “It’s outpacing all other sectors of the grocery store.”

PBFA reports that in 2020 plant-based yogurt grew 20%, almost seven times the rate of conventional yogurt; plant-based cheese grew 42%, almost twice the rate of conventional cheese; and plant-based eggs grew 168%, almost 10 times the rate of conventional eggs. The plant-based egg category grew more than 700% from 2018, 100 times the rate of conventional eggs.

Businesses are feeling the effects of this cultural shift. For the makers of vegan and vegetarian foods, they see a bright future. For area dairy farmers, they are facing the reality things are changing.

Amy’s has been a leader in the vegetarian/vegan world, and now has drive-through restaurants. The company plans to add 25-30 locations throughout the West Coast in the next five years. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Companies providing alternatives 

            Plant-based food manufacturers are constantly trying to grab a larger share of the market by creating new products and improving on what is currently on the market.

Petaluma headquartered Amy’s Kitchen is a leader in this industry, having been around since 1988.

“We never could have predicted that one-day vegetarian and vegan would become mainstream and on track to surpass animal protein alternatives someday,” Andy Berliner, Amy’s co-founder and CEO, said. “Consumers are more educated about food choices and the impact diet has on their health and the health of our planet. They’re seeing the data that a plant-based diet can improve personal and planet health. Now our biggest challenge is keeping up with the demand.”

He said demand for Amy’s products “surged 100% in 2020.” Berliner attributes this to people stockpiling during the pandemic and wanting to eat healthier. Revenues in 2020 were about $600 million.

“We expect a record year in 2022 because of investments we’ve made in more production facilities—new locations in San Jose and Goshen (in Tulare County)—and people,” Berliner said.

One thing the company isn’t trying to do is mimic or replicate the meat-eating experience.

“Amy’s is unique in that everything is made from whole, organic ingredients and cooked in real kitchens much the way you would at home with a lot of love,” Berliner said.

The company has 136 products on the market, and in a normal year launches six to 12 new items.

Wildbrine and WildCreamery in Santa Rosa are also always looking at new products to bring to market, just not as many as Amy’s. The 10-year-old company just released an oat butter and soon will have a quinoa based sour cream.

“We have made cultures for plant based items that are derived from the same byproducts by fermenting plants,” co-owner Chris Glab said.

Glad said in the United States in the 12 months ending Jan. 24, 2021, compared to the previous 12 months:

  • Plant-based cream cheese grew 2.3 times faster than traditional dairy cream cheese (45.1% vs 19.7%)
  • Plant-based sour cream grew 3.8 times faster than traditional dairy sour cream (53.8% vs 14.8%)
  • Plant-based butter grew 6.6 times faster than traditional dairy butter (133.3% vs 20.3%).

While Renegade Foods has only had plant-based products on the market since 2020, research and design was a decade-long process. The company is headquartered in Berkeley, with production taking place in Petaluma.

The company produces non-meat salami. It’s all plant-based, with no intention of using cell-created meat.

“Renegade is tailored to the flexitarian; the consumer who is looking to consume less meat,” Kalie Marder, the company’s co-owner, said. “We have the same mouth feel and flavors of the meat analogue.”

The pandemic forced owners to shift to online sales. Today retail is about 30% of the business, with growth in that area expected to increase.

Marder would not reveal what future products will be, but said to expect something from Renegade in 2022 that could be found in the deli section.

“I think it’s important to showcase plant-based options to an audience who may not be seeking them,” Marder said. “We are mission driven, to effect change. One way to normalize vegan food is to put it in the grocery store where you will find its animal counterpart. Consumers need to be presented with a meat-free option that still meets their expectations.”

The dairy industry lost a fight about what words could be used by the vegan/vegetarian food producers. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

The dairy struggle

As one food segment grows, it often means another is declining. That is what dairy farmers are worried about—losing market share.

The number of dairy farmers is on the decline. According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, “Since 2003, the U.S. has lost more than half of its licensed dairy operations, now just shy of 32,000 dairy operations.”

Even so, the agency reports milk production in the U.S. in 2020 was 223 billion pounds, an increase of just more than 2% from 2019. Butter production increased in 2020 with so many people at home baking during the pandemic.

Some North Bay dairy farmers backed the lawsuit the California Department of Food and Agriculture filed against Miyoko’s Creamery of Petaluma. Miyoko’s won that fight in U.S. District Court in San Francisco in August, thus allowing it to use dairy-centric phrases in its advertising.

“Any time there is a shift in technology or industry, there will be a battle between the old way and the new. However, dairy farmers, too, are waking up to the truth behind some of their woes—consolidation. It wasn’t the plant-based industry or veganism that put over 30 farmers out of business in the Northeast, it was Danone consolidating,” Miyoko Schinner, owner of the creamery, said. “My hope is that we can convince farmers that participating in a compassionate future of food will allow them to stay connected to the land and even evolve the relationship they have with their cows.”

Scott Dicker, marketing analyst for the wellness-focused data company SPINS, believes consumers wanting more plant-based foods is having a ripple effect.

“It is causing the meat and dairy industries to be more cognizant so they are claiming more sustainability by saying they are certified humane and organic,” he said.

Consumer demand and feed prices all play a role in the business side of dairy farming. What steps individual farmers will take to remain viable remains to be seen.

For Schinner, she is ready for the next battle, believing those who raise and sell animal products for a living are on the attack.

“The battle at the legislative level will become heated as subsidies for animal agriculture start to become challenged by not only activists, but lobbyists for the alt-protein industry as well as some legislators themselves. We are headed for some interesting times when we unravel unfair practices that prop up certain industries while suffocating innovative new technologies,” Schinner said. “These battles will cover everything from nomenclature to subsidies to ag-gag laws that actually protect the incumbent industries and stifle free speech that aims to expose some of those harmful practices.”

Robbins with the Plant Based Foods Association said the push back is from ranchers, pig farmers and dairy ranchers.

“Rather than try to compete on a level playing field, they are constantly trying to undermine the plant-based food industry,” he said. He pointed to the First Amendment struggles like what Miyoko’s Creamery went through. (Miyoko Schinner is a founding board member of PBFA.) “It plays out in courts, in state legislatures, with Congress and the FDA. It is something we are very engaged in.”

Robbins said companies like Tyson, Nestle and Cargill “are our allies.” He added, “They see consumers moving toward plant based and they are looking to diversify their lineups.” 

Non-dairy milk does not have to be refrigerated before it’s opened, thus freeing up display case space at retailers. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

The future of non-meat products

            When vegetarian burgers first hit the market in the 1980s they tasted like cardboard. Today it’s possible to get a plant-based burger that closely resembles hamburger in taste and texture.

“It used to be one freezer door with veggie burgers. You did not really see them incorporated into the burger segment,” said Dicker with SPINS. “Today they are merchandised with the beef and turkey burgers. It’s not just vegans eating them now.”

SPINS’ research shows growth in plant-based snacks, cheeses and dressings.

“It doesn’t mean we think meat and dairy are going to go away. It means where plant-based has not had a share it is going to have a share,” Dicker said.

However, no longer are the options solely plant based. Lab meat or cultured meat is available for consumption—though only in Singapore. San Francisco-based Eat Just in 2020 received authorization for its “cultured meat” to be sold there. Singapore is the only country to approve the sale of this type of meat.

Lab meat is when cells are taken from an animal and then reproduced in a laboratory. A positive in this approach is that no animals were slaughtered.

“It is no more fake food than other processes which is what most people in the United States and increasingly around the world are used to,” Nina Gheihman, a

postdoctoral scholar with the Sustainable Food Initiative at UC Berkeley Haas, said. “When people say it is lab food, that is what most people eat. When people are eating cereal, that is lab food. Hamburger is not just meat; it contains antibiotics. Red meat is highly processed. Chickens in particular are genetically modified. If you buy a conventional chicken at a grocery store, that is not real food.”

Gheihman earned her doctorate last year from Harvard, with her dissertation focused on the vegan movement.

Andrew Gravelle, an assistant professor with the UC Davis Department of Food Science & Technology, is doing his own lab experiments. They pertain to fats and how they can be used in plant-based foods to create products that are similar to what happens when meat is cooked.

His focus is on alternative ways of restructuring fat. The role fat has in texture is another component of his research.

Coconut oil is a main ingredient in a lot of vegetarian/vegan foods. Gravelle is looking at how other oils—like avocado and palm—could be used.

“We are structuring oil to behave like a fat so it is solid,” Gravelle explained.

He believes the creation of oleogels with specific applications is the future of plant-based foods to have greater resemblance to their meat counterparts.

Those tracking sales of non-meat products say people who don’t identify as vegan or vegetarian are not eating more, it’s the “flexitarians” who are moving the needle. These are people who still eat meat, but are consuming less each week by eating plant-based foods. They are using soy or some other milk instead of cow milk.

“Veganism is transforming from something that was about the animal rights movement into what is becoming more of a lifestyle movement. Now it is more consumer driven,” Gheihman said.

Gheihman already sees a cultural change in the works, believing there will be a generational transformation in the next 30 years.

“We know it is environmentally unsustainable to do things how we are doing

them,” she said. “One day it may be strange to think we raised animals, had factory farms and slaughtered them when we are eating slaughter free animals. We are moving in that direction because it is inevitable.”

Demographics plays a significant role—at least age—when it comes to who is eating what.

Glab with Wildbrine and WildCreamery reports 38% of those in Gen Z prefer plant based foods, compared to 32% of millennials, 26% of Gen X, and 22% of boomers.

Amy’s Kitchen is also well aware of who is buying what.

“As younger consumers, millennials and Gen Z, get older and make more spending decisions, they’re reaching for plant-based and vegetarian products. But they’re not just going for vegetarian, they’re looking for more from companies,” CEO Berliner said. “They’re aware of their spending power and are seeking out companies that are sustainably minded and doing good in the world. That will become a big differentiator as the vegetarian/vegan market grows.”

Note: A version of this story first appeared in the North Bay Business Journal.

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