Plant-based protein food products aren't a major threat to beef right now, but the former needs to be taken seriously because they appeal to "the younger generation," according to a study prepared for the Cattlemen's Beef Promotion and Research Board.

"The overall greatest threat from plant-based protein to the beef industry is small at this time. However, the main traction the plant-based sector has is, it currently appeals to the younger generation that tends to have greater concerns about health (e.g., fat content), environmental concerns, likely to have young children at home, likely to have college education, and has growing income," the report found.

The "Impacts of New Plant-Based Protein Alternatives on U.S. Beef Demand" study also concluded that "beef has a good image," with "consumers’ perceptions of taste, appearance, price, and naturalness of beef greatly exceed(ing) that for plant-based proteins."

The analysis did not study lab-based protein alternatives "as they remain in development and are not yet on the market."

The report was prepared by Glynn T. Tonsor and Ted Schroeder, economists with Kansas State University, and Jayson Lusk, an economist with Purdue University. The three are prominent in U.S. livestock circles.

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Tim Petry, North Dakota State University Extension livestock economist, was asked by Agweek to comment on the report. Petry said some people might question the validity of a report prepared for the cattlemen's group. But he's familiar with the work and reputation of all three of its authors, and so he's confident the report is reliable and scientifically sound.

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Conclusions, recommendations

Among the report's conclusions and recommendations:

  • Regular meat consumers aren't the core market for plant-based protein items. Therefore, "sustaining and promoting core aspects unique to beef" and keeping it popular with regular meat consumers is crucial.

  • Beef prices are important to consumption levels, so "the industry would be well-served to persistently seek supply-side gains that enhance beef's (price) competitiveness." At the same time, taste, food safety and freshness of beef can't be compromised.

  • Regular beef eaters likely will eat more plant-based protein items if the price of the latter drops.

  • Consumers perceive plant-based protein products as lower in fat and cholesterol and higher in fiber, so the beef industry should pursue strategies to boost beef's appeal in those areas.

  • Though there's value in tracking the share of the protein market that beef can garner, it's even more important "to focus on strategies that can grow the overall size of the market and strategies that ultimately improve profitability of beef producers."

  • Chicken remains the biggest competitor to beef. Changes in chicken breast prices have a larger impact on beef demand than plant-based price adjustments. As a result, "priority should be given to continuing to track chicken’s impact on beef demand, monitoring chicken industry dynamics, and continually seeking to improve beef’s relative position to chicken with consumers."

The report noted that per-capita consumption of beef has fallen 31% since 1970, while per-capita consumption of chicken has risen 160% in the same period. It also noted that while beef prices have dropped 8% in inflation-adjusted terms since 1970, the inflation-adjusted price of chicken has dropped 44% since then.

Petry said it's important to distinguish between demand and consumption. Consumers still generally like beef (demand), but are eating less of it (consumption) partly because of attractive chicken prices.

He mentioned that a number of prominent, affluent Americans are advocating for alternatives to meat, which has increased public awareness of the alternatives.

One example, though Petry didn't name him, is Bill Gates, the legendary co-founder of Microsoft and now a philanthropist. “I do think all rich countries should move to 100% synthetic beef,” Gates said in published reports.