Lightlife’s war of words with Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods is another sign meat-free is now mainstream – and has brands battling it out as their peers have done in the past. It won’t be the last squabble in the plant-based fraternity, writes Dean Best.

If we needed any further evidence of the rise of plant-based meat, this week’s row between three of the major meat-free burger brands in the US has underlined how the category is now part of the industry’s mainstream – and has the same kind of marketing tactics and sharp elbows we’ve seen in more traditional parts of the market in years gone by.

Lightlife, the meat-free brand owned by Maple Leaf Foods, the Canadian meat giant, has hit out at the “hyper-processed” ingredients used by Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods – provoking a fierce response from its US rivals.

Through a pre-prepared statement and adverts in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, Lightlife, acquired by Maple Leaf in 2017, claimed consumers “deserve plant-based protein that is developed in a kitchen, not a lab” and insisted it was “making a clean break from both of you ‘food tech’ companies that attempt to mimic meat at any cost”.

Beyond and Impossible, the upstarts from California that have rapidly grown to become two of the largest players in the rapidly-growing market for meat-free burgers and bangers in the US, did not take too kindly to Lightlife’s criticism, which came as the Maple Leaf-owned brand was looking to promote the new recipes for its range of products.

Impossible, which has seen its ingredients come under some scrutiny in the not-so-distant past, came out fighting, insisting Lightlife’s claims were “a disingenuous, desperate disinformation campaign attempting to cast doubt on the integrity of our products”.

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By GlobalData

Aside from the entertainment factor (who doesn’t like a public squabble between high-profile brands?), the row brings into a focus a number of issues. First, and most obviously, is just how competitive the market for plant-based alternatives to meat has become. Sales data from the US shows the rapid growth seen in the category over the last couple of years has continued into 2020 and has, in some ways, been further fuelled by the onset of Covid-19.

The growth of the market – Nielsen data quoted by Newsweek in May said sales in the eight weeks to 25 April had more than trebled – offers opportunities for a range of brands and manufacturers but that won’t dampen competition, only intensify it. As retailers devote more shelf space to products, so brands further increase their product ranges. Only this week, Impossible announced how it had secured another listing at Kroger. Brands will be keen to differentiate their products from the competition. In many ways, that will be vital.

Secondly, the entry of the meat-free category into the mainstream has, largely, been through attracting more meat-eaters to the fixture. Most often, marketeers are not just targeting the ranks of the already vegetarian and vegan but the ‘flexitarian’, too, which is, of course, a far larger cohort.

Amid fierce competition, brands need to retain the interest of flexitarians, less passionate about plant-based fare than their vegetarian and vegan counterparts but, nonetheless, curious to try something new for reasons related to their health or the environment. Hefty investment in marketing is needed and using some of those marketing dollars to take aim at the competition is straight out of the original playbook.

But, thirdly, and perhaps more pertinently, as the number of consumers becoming more interested in the links between their diet and their health grows, so will scrutiny of ingredients.

Once the preserve of foodies, those with allergies or those eschewing certain foods for ethical reasons, we’re seeing more mainstream punters pay more attention to ingredient lists. It may not be everyone. The great mass of consumers may take what they see or hear or read at face value and the newly-interested may not bother to read ingredient lists every single time they visit a store but it is happening.

Ingredient lists are becoming a point of comparison between brands, even in product areas like meat-free, which start with the perception among consumers that, by default, the products are healthier and better for the environment than their traditional counterparts.

The differences in how, for example, meat-free burgers are made and their ingredients have been discussed in industry and investor circles for a number of years now. But those discussions are starting to be had among consumers.

Again, these kinds of issues are not considered by all shoppers all of the time – meaning marketing campaigns like the one launched by Lightlife this week are, for want of a better word, smart from its perspective (and no doubt annoying if you’re at Beyond or Impossible) but more attention is being paid to what is actually going into the plant-based patty or meat-free banger.

While reducing meat consumption and turning instead to plant-based protein is broadly seen as beneficial to human health, that is not to say every plant-based alternative can be considered “healthy”. There is growing attention being placed on, for example, the amount of salt in products sold as alternatives to meat.

Lightlife’s volley at Beyond and Impossible is an opportunistic move to try to demonstrate to consumers how its products might be different to those leading the market in the US. A close look at the ingredient decks of Lightlife, Beyond and Impossible’s burgers show the patties aren’t worlds apart, except perhaps for Impossible’s use of soy leghemoglobin, or heme, to mimic the bleeding of red meat or to mimic crucial meat characteristics. Heme has been a subject of debate in the past, although the ingredient was certified as “generally recognised as safe” (GRAS) by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last year.

The chances of other plant-based brands looking to aggressively point to differences between their products and the competition are high and, as the market continues to grow, we should expect to see more campaigns launched in areas like ingredients, nutrition and even the environment. In the UK, Quorn Foods has launched an advertising campaign touting its own environmental credentials. The adverts don’t target any other product – conventional or plant-based – but, as competition grows, so will the temptation to do so. We’ve seen it all before.