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25th Feb 2024

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The plant-based meat market is starting to sizzle in Europe

  • Vegan sausages. Plant-based food proponents often call themselves ‘flexitarians’, ‘reducitarians’ or ‘climavores’ (Photo: Like Meat)
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Meat alternatives aren't going anywhere. According to a new market report commissioned by the Good Food Institute Europe and compiled by Nielson IQ, the European plant-based food market is now worth over €2bn, having grown every year since 2020.

The report, which analysed markets in 13 EU countries, primarily western and central Europe, also found that plant-based dairy is the most widely consumed alternative product, with the animal-free seafood category growing the fastest. Germany, the UK, and Italy are the leading consumers, while the Netherlands, Germany, and Sweden spend the most per capita.

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  • Sizzling. Inflation is helping to close the price gap between imitation and animal meat (Photo: Like Meat)

This news shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who's kept their eye on grocery store aisles. A decade ago, vegetarians were limited to limp lentil burgers or tofu nuggets. Now, meat-abstainers are swimming in options — Spanish brand Heura boasts vegan chorizo in multiple flavors, landmark British fast-casual chain Gregg's sports vegan sausages, and the Netherlands is home to over an array of over 60 plant-based companies.

Still, it's unlikely that plant-based meats will surpass animal protein anytime soon — across the continent, animal farming still dwarfs meat substitutes by about 100 to 1 — but the increasing growth of the plant-based market is nothing to scoff at.

The category growth comes at a time when meat consumption is stagnant or falling in many European countries. During 2022, plant-based meat alternatives grew one percent in unit sales while animal meat dropped by four percent.

In some European countries, veggie proteins are already starting to displace meat. Germany, with its affordable and convenient plant-based options, has seen the sector double in just two years' time while meat consumption steadily declines. The same story is likely to play out in other European countries within this decade — the European Commission estimates that overall meat consumption per capita will drop over four percent by 2030.

Young, liberal, urban — and female

Drivers of this plant-based shift tend to be young, liberal, educated, female, city-dwelling, and environmentally-conscious, but not necessarily vegan or vegetarian; 90 percent of people who purchased plant-based meat alternatives also buy animal meats. Plant-based proponents would rather call themselves 'flexitarians', 'reducitarians' or 'climavores'.

They're not alone — there's a growing movement in Europe to prioritise sustainable food choices. Nearly 60 percent of Europeans consider climate change when purchasing food.

Recently, the EU has been cracking down on greenwashing in agribusiness and seeks to clarify environmental labels on food packaging.

Meat, especially beef, is one of the least sustainable foods on the market today, responsible for at least 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. According to environmental analysis from Greenpeace, the European Union needs to lower its meat consumption by over 70 percent by 2030 in order to help stall climate change. That would entail about 500 grams or so of meat per week, about one beef patty or less per day.

Plants, even processed plant-based products, don't commit the same climate sins. In a meta-analysis of 16 peer-reviewed studies, researchers at the University of Bath found that plant-based products emitted up to 120 times less greenhouse gases as compared to beef and up to 10 times less when compared to pork. They also use far less land, energy, and water.

The plant-based meat companies that are thriving are doing so because they can successfully relay this message to eco-conscious consumers. Heura, a popular Spanish brand, is particularly adept at tapping into this — their billboards and ads frequently tout the carbon footprint of meat to directly appeal to consumers' ethical sensitivities. And so far, the message seems to be working — the Barcelona-based company reported revenue growth of 80 percent in 2022.

The healthiness of plant-based products is also a major draw — nearly 60 percent of Europeans who eat plant-based products are doing so for the supposed health benefits. Swapping red and processed meat out for plant-based alternatives can be helpful for reducing risk of heart disease and cancer.

Critics of plant-based meats often point to the long ingredient lists and decry the products as 'ultra-processed'. And while it's certainly a stretch to call plant-based burgers a 'health' food, most health professionals would argue that they're somewhat healthier than the foods they're intended to replace — after all, few people are eating burgers for the health benefits.

Still, the meat industry often runs ads pointing out the artificial additives in plant-based products, providing another PR hurdle for alternative protein brands to overcome.

It's not all rosy for the industry. Marketing of the plant-based products have resulted in unexpected challenges, like what they can even call their products. While the European meat industry failed to ban the words "veggie burger" in 2020 — claiming the term misled consumers — they're still debating language. Plant-based milks must market themselves with vague phrases like "oat drink" or "soy milk alternative".

Cost is still a major barrier for those on the fence. In almost all EU countries, plant-based products still cost more than their meat counterparts, sometimes by large margins. In Spain, a vegan chorizo will cost you about a euro more, while a classic British mince will cost an extra £4 [€4.5] a kilo.

Plant-based meat companies are still chasing after price parity — the economic tipping point when a soy-protein burger is the same cost or cheaper than a regular hamburger patty. Last year, the Netherlands made headlines when it was revealed that plant protein alternatives were now universally cheaper than meat. It should be no surprise that, even though only one percent of their population is vegan, the Dutch have been reducing their meat consumption for over 10 years now. Most countries can't claim the same.

Inflation is helping to close the price gap between imitation and animal meat. Within the last few years, meat's costs have been hiked up by about 11 percent, while veggie burgers' costs barely budged. Most analysts believe price parity will occur throughout Europe sometime this decade — although the jury is still out on exactly when.

While the pea and soy burgers have come a long way in the flavour department, not all of them are tasty enough to sway consumers. Some products were rushed to market, eager to cash in on the plant-based craze before R&D had finished creating an enticing product. Many consumers are unlikely to ever try any soy burgers, associating them with gross, processed food.

Some people will likely never become convinced. For many, meat offers a sense of comfort, tradition, that will never be replicated by soy protein. Plant-based products consistently poll poorly among older, rural, and conservative EU residents.

But within a few years, another contender will likely arrive on the European alternative protein scene: cultivated meat, an innovative and sustainable food grown from the cells of animals in bioreactors.

Cultivated meat still isn't approved for sale in the EU, so don't expect to see lab-grown chicken breasts on your local menu anytime soon. But the industry's progress in Singapore, Israel, and the United States, and the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization's cautious endorsement of the products' safety earlier in 2023, indicates that a cultured meat factory will likely land in Europe within a few years.

Even though the new-fangled invention is already facing pushback from Italian lawmakers, the product polls surprisingly well, especially among carnivorous men. The product resembles animal meat far more than a pea-based Beyond Burger in taste and texture, which means it may be able to capture audiences who aren't convinced by plant-based imitations.

But until lab-grown meat hits shelves, plant-based alternatives will likely continue to sizzle, finding a home within a changing Europe.

This article first appeared in EUobserver's magazine, Alt-Protein: Eating away climate change?, which you can now read in full online.

Author bio

Björn Jóhann Ólafsson is a researcher, writer, journalist and editor for Sentient Media, specialising in climate, agriculture, and animals.

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