Nestlé, DSM-Firmenich and Cargill were the top three companies filing for plant-based meat patents from August 2021 to August 2023, data suggests.

With 333 applications identified, Nestlé led the way, while food commodity giant and meat exporter Cargill is found to have applied for some 119, according to GlobalData, Just Food’s parent.

Plant-based meat specialist Impossible Foods registered 19 applications, while rival Beyond Meat applied for four during the period, figures from GlobalData’s Patent Analytics database show.

After a period of rapid growth, the plant-based meat category has come under pressure in some markets of late, with sales in decline in countries including the US and the UK.

Beyond Meat has reportedly been scaling back new projects and cutting expenses via staff layoffs amid falling revenues.

A recent report by US financial service provider CoBank suggested the plant-based meat market is facing headwinds on multiple fronts, including negative consumer perceptions of fake meat in terms of affordability, flavour and mouthfeel. Competition is fierce as the early growth of the category attracted a flurry of entrants.

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CoBank’s report cited a recent study in the Food Quality and Preference journal that found even loyal consumers of plant-based meats are not satisfied with mouthfeel and flavour.

In March, Nestlé announced it would pull its Garden Gourmet meat-free and Wunda alt-dairy brands from retail in the UK and Ireland.

Despite the move, the company suggested it remains committed to the category either through internal innovation or M&A. “We believe that a more plant-based diet is the future and one of our strategic priorities is to expand our vegetarian and flexitarian choices. We are assessing alternative ways in order to address these strategic priorities, either organically through our established portfolio of brands or via acquisitions,” Nestlé added.

Garden Gourmet will still be available in foodservice in the UK and Ireland, as well as in retail channels in other European markets.

Cargill's presence in plant-based meat has included investments in fledgling companies, while it supplies products including burgers, grinds and toppings to foodservice customers.

Achieving price parity, or close to it, remains a key challenge for plant-based meat manufacturers and brands. The issue was highlighted again by Beyond Meat when the company reported its second-quarter results earlier this month – results that included a 30% fall in net revenues.

“I think the main issue with the category is not bringing in enough new consumers. That’s the number one issue. It’s not necessarily the characteristics of the consumer, it’s that the overall pie is not growing and that’s what we need to fix together,” Beyond Meat founder and CEO Ethan Brown said.

Discussing the difficulties for meat alternatives in times when consumers are spending less on proteins, Brown added: “But then you get to our category where we are high priced, and so not going to do particularly well in that environment.”

Brown also said the US market was showing particular signs of slowing demand due to a misconception of the category on the whole and the environmental benefits of choosing plant-based meat alternatives over animal-based counterparts.

While Beyond Meat is reviewing its pricing – as price cuts were not successful last year – to address demand issues, aggressive spending to reduce the price gap with conventional meat is not the answer in the US market right now, Brown suggested.

“Doing a lot of continued discounting, whether it’s us or a major competitor, we’re just trading among consumers, so it’s not productive.”

CoBank’s report recommends that companies address cost issues by “building greater economies of scale and minimising supply chain and freight expenses”. This has been a particular challenge for smaller, younger companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, whose production volumes are keeping prices high.

Beyond Meat’s priority, aside from generating efficiencies, is addressing the “ambiguity and confusion” around the health benefits of plant-based meat, Brown said.

“There is a considerable gap between the strong health credentials of our products and a broader counter-narrative that is now afoot, and this gap appears to have widened.”

The category, however, does remain of interest to investors and corporate players. One notable recent move is the decision by dairy giant FrieslandCampina to launch its Tender’lish alt-chicken brand in the UK as a “strategic play” to drive longer-term growth in the country for the Dutch dairy giant.

Our signals coverage is powered by GlobalData’s Thematic Engine, which tags millions of data items across six alternative datasets — patents, jobs, deals, company filings, social media mentions and news — to themes, sectors and companies. These signals enhance our predictive capabilities, helping us to identify the most disruptive threats across each of the sectors we cover and the companies best placed to succeed.