For Plant-Based Meat, Will Falling Prices Mean the Sky’s the Limit?

New Study Offers Promising News for Alt-Meat Backers

A whopping 28 percent of consumers say they’d choose animal-free beef in this grocery scenario.

A recent study on American consumer preferences for red meat and its competitors raised my eyebrows. Conducted by Ellen J. Van Loo, Vincenzina Caputo and Jayson L. Lusk, the research was generally heralded by beef industry publications (like Drovers) as a morale boost for a conventional beef industry that’s been worried about the success of plant-based burgers. At first glance, it’s not hard to tell why.

The paper is well-summarized by one of its authors, Jayson Lusk, a respected economist at Purdue University. If you want an even shorter summary, though, here you go:

When presented with various equally-priced beef options — beef from farmed cows, plant-based, or “lab-grown,” [their term; more on how such terminology could negatively affect the numbers here and here] — 72 percent of Americans preferred beef from farmed cows.

Sure, 72 percent is a huge majority, no doubt. The real takeaway for me, however, wasn’t that most Americans wanted meat from cows. The real meat of the matter for me was that a whopping 28 percent of Americans say they’d choose cow-free beef (whether grown from plants or cultured) were it priced competitively.

After all, Barclays’ bold prediction that in a decade these animal-free meats could be 10 percent of the meat market was treated with skepticism by some in the meat industry. This study suggests that the seemingly aggressive Barclays prediction could actually be conservative if alt-meats become more affordable.

As plant-based entrepreneur Christie Lagally points out, currently less than one percent of meat consumed in America comes from plant-based sources, and that’s even smaller globally. And a full 0.0 percent comes from cultivated meat. If it’s true that those numbers would jump to nearly 30 percent if these products were priced and packaged the same as conventional beef, there’s going to be a lot of beef between these industries and their animal-free counterparts when pricing comes down.

On a recent trip to Safeway, my wife and I saw Beyond Burgers being marketed at $6.99 for two quarter-pounders, or $14 per pound. That’s about 300% the cost of the commodity ground beef patties being marketed next to it. While Beyond can barely keep up with demand even at such a markup, just imagine what demand would be like if price parity were achieved with conventional beef. This new study may give us an idea.

(For what it’s worth, I’ve sometimes seen Tofurky sausages in supermarkets being the cheapest sausage on a per-ounce basis, though I’ve never seen them marketed in the meat case where they could more easily compete for mainstream consumer attention.)

Admittedly, how people self-report that they’d act in a given consumer scenario doesn’t always mean it’s what they’d actually do. But if these numbers are anywhere near accurate, this study seems far more like a boost to plant-based meat purveyors. If their prices keep falling, the sky may be the limit.

Paul Shapiro is the author of the national bestseller Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World, the CEO of The Better Meat Co., a four-time TEDx speaker, and the host of the Business for Good Podcast.

Husband of Toni Okamoto. Author of nat’l bestseller Clean Meat. CEO of The Better Meat Co. Host of Business for Good Podcast. 4x TEDx speaker. Paul-Shapiro.com