How did “big meat” change the food industry? The story of wholesome farmers who let their animals roam free no longer represents the industry. Meat is corporate now. And it transformed the food industry in less than a century.
A handful of companies have taken over the meat industry in the past 50 years: Tyson, JBS, and Cargill, Brazilian company BRF, and European company Vion. Their collective annual revenues average about $222,728,060,300.
These companies bought out smaller businesses and built a conglomerate of brands to handle all aspects of meat production, from processing and packaging to managing the global meat supply chain.
Beef brands like 5 Star Beef, Blue Ribbon Angus Beef, and Cedar River Farms Natural Beef are all owned by JBS. Smithfield Foods owns Nathan’s Famous, Cook’s, Eckrich, Healthy Ones, and Farmland. And Cargill is the owner to Shady Brooks Farms, Angus Pride, Fairview Farms, Prairie Ridge, Sterling Silver, and Preferred Angus.
How Meat Changed the Food Industry
Humans have been eating meat for 2.6 million years, but the rise of factory farming is relatively new in terms. Advancements of the American railroad system between the 1870s and the 1930s aided the meat industry’s rapid growth.
Trains made it possible to ship refrigerated meat across the country with less risk of spoilage. Meat-packing facilities streamlined their processes, assigning one task per worker. Industrialization allowed the meat industry to scale up fast and a global market emerged.
Despite efforts to protect the quality of meat, large corporations began buying out small farm operations. Due to decreased competition, farmers were forced to conform to standards set by parent companies. Family farms had to accept lower prices while struggling to meet new standards for which animals to raise and how. Early industrial farms emerged in a bid to increase profits. Packing 20,000 chickens into a warehouse is more “economical” than purchasing enough land for them to roam “free-range.”
The 1948 short documentary film “The Chicken of Tomorrow” explores the history of the factory-farmed egg and poultry industries. Chickens were bred to lay 10 times the eggs they would lay in the wild. They were also genetically engineered to have bigger breasts, wings, and legs.
Farmers began fattening up cattle and injecting them with growth hormones to keep up with the demand for meat. In the 1960s, this type of factory farming became the norm. Scientists discovered that there would be no way to feed the rapidly growing population while raising animals for meat the same way. There wouldn’t be enough land to meet the growing demand.
Today, 99 percent of animal products in the U.S. come from factory farms. And the world’s appetite for meat hasn’t slowed down. In 2018, the average American ate 222.2 pounds of meat. Domestic meat production surpassed 1 billion pounds in a historical first. Worldwatch Institute data notes that people in industrial countries eat an average of 176 pounds per person. A record high of 335 million tons of meat was produced in 2018, according to the FAO.
The Hidden Costs of Meat
Federal funding helps keep industrial animal agriculture alive. According to the “Meatonomics” website by David Simon, the U.S. paid the met and dairy industries $38 billion in subsidies in 2016. Less than half of that was allocated for fruit and vegetable farmers.
Meat isn’t naturally cheap. Government subsidies keep hidden costs at bay, helping to make it readily available and affordable.
Money given to the meat industry helps keep costs for water, feed, and land low. There are also the health-related costs. Animals are raised in ways that breed antibiotic-resistant diseases that go on to affect humans. The WHO (World Health Organization) warned that we’re in a “post-antibiotic era” where something as benign as a scraped knee could be deadly because of the antibiotic resistance now rampant thanks to livestock production.
Hidden Healthcare Costs
Diets heavy in meat, dairy, and eggs have also been linked to a growing number of chronic health issues like heart disease, type-2 diabetes, and certain forms of cancer, which add to healthcare costs.
“The subsidies damage our country’s health and increase the medical costs that will ultimately need to be paid to treat the effects of the obesity epidemic,” a 2012 report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization, concluded. “Taxpayers are paying for the privilege of making our country sick.”
And then there’s the planet — experts have identified animal agriculture as one of the chief drivers of climate change. In order to sustain a western diet, we need to grow three times the amount of crops to feed animals raised for food than if we all just ate plants.
Governments across the world have begun adopting plans to reduce carbon emissions in the wake of the Paris Agreement. But, the U.S. lags behind and is invested in protecting the meat and dairy industries. In states like Alabama and Iowa, confined animal feeding operations aka factory farms, are exempt from reporting their greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) despite reports that livestock production accounts for as much as 51 percent of all GHGs.
How much should meat, dairy, and eggs really cost? The average family would pay an additional $275 on their weekly grocery bill if consumers paid for the true cost of animal products.
Hazardous to Health
The WHO estimates that 600 million people — nearly 1 in 10 — fall ill from food each year, and an estimated 420,000 die as a result of eating contaminated food.
Living close to a factory farm negatively affects community health. In 2018, floodwaters from Hurricane Florence caused more damage to North Carolina hog farms in more than two decades. Several dozen waste lagoons overflowed, contaminating the waterways. The spilled waste put residents at risk of coming into contact with salmonella, insecticides, and pharmaceuticals.
The WHO classifies red and processed meat as carcinogenic, which goes against the long history of U.S. lobby groups pushing for the promotion of meat consumption.
The meat lobby is one of the most influential groups in Washington. In 2014, lobbyists spent more than $4 million lobbying Congress. Gun-control lobbyists spent less than half that amount.
The groups aim to protect the meat industry by seeking government support, subsidies, and lax regulations overproduction and processing. Meat lobbyists heavily influence the USDA’s food guide. The food pyramid was redone in 1991 to emphasize more meat and dairy consumption. A New York University Department of Nutrition paper notes that “federal dietary advice has evolved from ‘decrease your consumption of meat’ to ‘have two or three daily servings.’”
Pressure from the animal agriculture industry dates back to the 1970s. U.S. public schools mandate giving children milk at lunchtime. The dairy industry recently revitalized its “Got Milk” campaign to encourage kids to drink more milk. Sales of dairy-free milk are quickly outpacing traditional dairy products.
Several agriculture-heavy states have implemented ag-gag laws, which punish whistleblowers for exposing the violence within the industry. According to Mercy for Animals, seven states currently have ag-gag laws in place: Missouri, Arkansas, Montana, Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota, and North Carolina. Twenty-eight states total have attempted to pass laws.
The Meat Industry’s Problem With Labels
Meat and dairy lobbyists are now turning their attention to plant-based meat. The US Cattleman’s Association is “appalled that new forms of protein are being sold under names such as Beyond Beef and Impossible Burger,” according to the Chicago Tribune.
Lobbyists are using lawmakers to stifle the rising vegan meat market. Vegan meat cannot be labeled as “burger,” “sausage,” and “bacon,” thanks to a new Mississippi law. The Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA) — a trade organization for vegan food brands — filed a lawsuit to stop the ban, calling it a violation of First Amendment rights.
“It’s really the consumers that are going to lose out by having to change these words in a way that they won’t understand,” said Daniel Staackman, founder of plant-based meat brand Upton’s Naturals and PBFA member. “This is really a protectionist move on the part of the meat industry to try to squash our progress”
Plant-Based Brands Push Back
A similar law passed in Arkansas and is already receiving push-back from groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for being unconstitutional. The group filed a lawsuit on behalf of vegan brand, Tofurky.
“The Act is a restriction on commercial speech that prevents companies from sharing truthful and non-misleading information about their products,” says the lawsuit. “It does nothing to protect the public from potentially misleading information. Instead, it creates consumer confusion where none existed before in order to impede competition.”
Arkansas, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming have introduced similar laws.
Instances of the meat and dairy industries attempting to restrict alternatives in the market are nothing new. In the late 1800s, dairy lobbyists pushed the Margarine Act, which bogged manufacturers down with a restrictive tax and prohibitive licensing fees. Some states even banned its sale outright. Governor Lucius Hubbard of Minnesota called the vegetable oil-based spread an “abomination” of “depraved human genius.” Laws in the early 1900s called for margarine to be dyed pink to avoid confusion with butter. The Supreme Court overturned the laws on the grounds that it’s illegal to enforce the adulteration of food.
An Evolving Economy
While animal agriculture lobbyists push for restrictive labeling laws, changes are happening in the plant-based food industry. According to data from PBFA, the industry contributed $4.5 billion to the U.S. economy in 2018. The average income is $59.3k — $12 higher than the average salary — and it has created 55,634 new jobs. With several brands preparing to open new facilities, job creation will continue.
Disrupting the Meat Industry
California-based brand Beyond Meat is one of the biggest disruptors to the $90 billion meat business. It became the first vegan meat brand to go public earlier this year, resulting in the biggest first-day IPO in nearly two decades.
Due to Beyond Meat’s marketing strategy, vegan meat made its way to the meat aisle. The Beyond Burger was the first plant-based meat to be sold alongside traditional beef in grocery stores. This paved the way for the placement of other brands to market in the meat case. The brand hopes to expand its product lineup to include vegan bacon and steak. Due to its success, analysts predicted that the vegan meat market could be worth $41 billion within the next decade.
Vegan Meat Goes Mainstream
Beyond Meat’s Beyond Burger is available at Carl’s Jr., Del Taco, A&W Canada, and Tim Hortons. Its new vegan breakfast sausage launched in NYC Dunkin’ locations last July, with plans to go national. Its one-day fried chicken trial at an Atlanta KFC sold out in just five hours and it will also trial vegan meat at Subway.
Impossible Foods is making similar strides. The Bay Area brand’s plant-based meat is available in mainstream restaurant chains including White Castle, the Mexican-inspired QDOBA, and at Burger King as a Whopper option. The brand has raised more than $750 million and has a growing list of celebrity supporters, including Jay-Z, Katy Perry, Jaden Smith, and Serena Williams.
Vegan Meat on the Rise
Non-vegan brands are also staking a claim in the burgeoning plant-based meat market. Nestlé, the world’s largest food company, is turning its attention to creating new vegan products. It recently launched the Incredible Burger and Mince under its Garden Gourmet brand in Europe. The realistic plant-based patty is now available in McDonald’s Germany and Israel. It is looking to develop vegan chicken, sausage, and bacon.
“We are deeply interested in the plant-based food area,” Nestlé CEO Mark Schneider told CNBC. “I think we have a lot to show in this area.”
Smithfield, the world’s largest pork producer, recently announced its first vegan range. Called Pure Farmland, the new line mimics the realistic look and texture of the Beyond Burger, featuring burgers, meatballs, breakfast patties, and ground beef. Maple Leaf Foods, Canada’s largest packaged meat company, acquired vegan brands Lightlife Foods and Field Roast in 2017, claiming that it plans to become a leader of sustainable protein. Lightlife launched vegan meat products similar to the ones made by Beyond Meat.
Poultry giant Tyson Foods was initially an investor in Beyond Meat. It sold its stake ahead of Beyond Meat’s IPO and launched its own range of plant-based protein blended with real meat.
Although the number of vegans has risen by little, an increasing number of consumers are turning to plant-based meat due to health, environmental, and animal rights concerns.
Scaling Up Production
Brands are ramping up production. Maple Leaf Foods will open a $310 million plant-based protein factory — the largest in the United States — to make Lightlife and Field Roast products. Beyond Meat has two facilities in the U.S. and announced its first European facility earlier this year.
In the UK, entrepreneur and VBites founder, Heather Mills will open the 385,000 square foot “Plant Based Valley” to manufacture vegan meat. The factory had been sitting empty for 2 years, but this is now Mill’s third recent factory purchase.
“It will bring more jobs to the region and we can incubate all of our VBITES Ventures investments to help them scale up, manufacture, distribute and sell in 24 countries around the world,” Mills said.
Finnebrogue Artisan, the UK’s leading premium sausage producer, invested £3 million in a dedicated meat-free factory in Ireland last January.
Price Parity for Plant-Based Protein
Increased availability may mean that the price of vegan protein will soon achieve parity with traditional meat. Liz Specht Ph.D., a senior scientist at the Good Food Institute, said: “Industrial animal agriculture has been operating and optimizing at a global scale for decades. Yet it is still inherently more efficient to make meat directly from plants rather than feeding our crops to animals and then eating a part of the animal. It’s all but inevitable that the plant-based meat industry will eventually be cost-competitive with conventional meat.”
A large-scale European plant-based protein biorefinery called Plenitude may make that happen. The project, led by ten partners including biotech company 3F Bio, European meat giant ABP Foods, and veggie meat brand Vivera, will produce vegan protein for food from low-cost crops. The Ghent-based factory will produce 16,000 tonnes of protein per year to start. The refined plant-based protein will be available to companies that make vegan meat. If successful, similar facilities will open across Europe, potentially bringing down the cost of vegan food.
“Global experts in governments and bodies such as the UN and the FAO all consistently highlight the need to reduce the reliance on protein from livestock,” said 3F Bio CEO Jim Laird. “From an environmental perspective, this is one of the crises of our time.”
Canada’s prairie provinces also seek to be a leader in plant-based protein. The nation invested $153 million in the Protein Industries Canada Supercluster, which will process protein from peas and beans, last year.
The Global Vegan Meat Market
So, does meat have a future? Yes and no.
The meat of yesterday — wrought with ethical, economical, and ecological issues is facing extinction. But in its wake is the rise of protein 2.0. A recent report by multinational investment bank UBS Group AG predicted that the vegan meat market will reach $85 billion by 2030.
And Global consultancy firm AT Kearney analyzed the market and predicts that by 2040, all meat will be vegan. Experts say that over the past few years, vegan food has been propelled from niche markets into the mainstream. Brands like Beyond Meat and Impossible Food are proving that you can have meat without the animal. And their main customer, meat-eaters, agree.