Demand for meatless meat is skyrocketing during the pandemic

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A cross section of an Impossible Burger against a jazzy purple background.

A cross section of an Impossible Burger. | Sarah Lawrence for Vox

The Impossible Burger just hit 1,700 more grocery stores nationwide. Contactless delivery and curbside pickup are available.

Retail sales of plant-based food are taking off during the coronavirus pandemic. The last time I braved the grocery store, which was a few weeks ago, I unwittingly illustrated two of the main reasons why.

First, I went in search of eggs. The store was all out, but right above the shelf where I usually find them, I spied a bottle of Just Egg, the plant-based substitute made out of beans. I’d never had eggless eggs before, but now, out of necessity, I decided to try something new.

Then I walked through the meat aisle. There was still plenty of beef and chicken to be had — but given that a live-animal market in China may have given rise to Covid-19 and that the giant factory farms that supply 99 percent of America’s meat are a pandemic risk too, meat just seemed very unappealing in that moment. Instead, I grabbed a package of Beyond Meat and went home.

These two factors — spot shortages of animal products in stores and a growing awareness of the problems with our animal agriculture system — are likely driving an increase in retail sales of plant-based meat products during the pandemic. According to a recent Nielsen report, demand for these products has increased 278 percent since this time last year.

Impossible Foods announced Tuesday that because demand for the Impossible Burger has “skyrocketed among home chefs,” the company is accelerating its retail expansion this week, rolling out the burgers at 1,700 Kroger-owned grocery stores nationwide.

Impossible Foods began 2020 with only about 150 grocery stores selling its flagship burger, so this rollout represents a huge increase. And it’s just the beginning.

“Our existing retail partners have achieved record sales of Impossible Burger in recent weeks,” said the company’s president, Dennis Woodside, in a statement. “We expect our retail footprint to expand more than 50-fold in 2020 alone, and we are moving as quickly as possible to expand with additional outlets and in more retail channels.”

The expansion is being carried out with an eye to the pandemic, which has many of us shopping from behind a computer rather than a shopping cart. Starting today, you can order Impossible Burgers online through Kroger.com, which will sync up with an Instacart delivery slot to get the products to your home.

If you prefer not to use Instacart, there’s also a contactless curbside pickup option: You can place your order online, drive to a brick-and-mortar store, pop the trunk of your car, and a store clerk will place the products in there for you.

Impossible Foods’ new partnership with Kroger — as well as its release of a cookbook for home chefs — is part of a push to increasingly sell plant-based meat directly to consumers. This is a crucial pivot at a time when restaurants are grappling with supply-chain disruptions (Wendy’s, for example, had to pull traditional burgers off the menu in some locations due to meat shortages) and overall foodservice demand is down because of stay-at-home orders.

“More Americans are dining in and that’s what’s driving the acceleration in retail grocery store sales. March was by far a record for retail production for us, and April blew past it by a big margin,” Rachel Konrad, Impossible’s chief communication officer, told me. But she added that the company continues to supply Burger King, Qdoba, White Castle, and many other restaurants, which have found ways to adapt. “Our largest customer is Burger King, and while the dine-in service is closed in most states, drive-through service is up.”

Unlike traditional beef, meatless meat has a production process that somewhat insulates it from the ravages of the pandemic, both pragmatically and ethically: Its supply chain is obviously unaffected by recent meat plant closures, and its workers are not contracting Covid-19 at high rates because they do not have to work shoulder to shoulder like their meatpacking counterparts.

What’s Beyond Meat got planned during the coronavirus crisis?

Impossible’s main competitor, Beyond Meat, is also looking to expand. In March, as the pandemic was ramping up, CEO Ethan Brown said, “This is a time of hyper-growth. We are doing everything we can right now to grab as much market share as we possibly can.”

By late April, Bloomberg was reporting that rumors of a looming meat shortage — spurred on by the closure of meat plants that had become Covid-19 hot spots — were helping to lift shares of Beyond Meat. The stock rose 41 percent in one week, its largest weekly jump since the company went public in 2019.

Beyond Meat’s stock likely also rose because the company signed a massive new deal: Starbucks stores in China are beginning to sell its products. It’s hard to overstate the significance of partnering with a chain as huge as Starbucks — or of making inroads in Asian markets.

The company already sells its meatless meat in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore. Now, it says it’ll open a production facility in Asia this year to better penetrate China, the second-largest economy in the world and a key market for meat and faux-meat products. Brown says the company will not be deterred from carrying out this plan, despite difficulties caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

One challenge facing plant-based meat companies is that their products tend to be a bit pricier than, say, your average burger from McDonald’s. With 30 million Americans unemployed and a world pummeled by a major recession, some analysts warned that Beyond Meat’s stock might sink because people won’t be able to afford premium meat alternatives.

Yet Beyond Meat reported its financial results for the first quarter of 2020 on Tuesday, and they showed a company that’s in good shape despite the pandemic. Although it saw foodservice sales decrease by 23 percent in March, retail sales rose 12 percent. Net revenues increased 141 percent year-over-year. Shares in the company rose immediately after the earning statement’s release.

Konrad was bullish about the prospects for Impossible, too. “Ground beef is one of the most recession-resistant products. It’s something Americans buy in good times and in bad. And it’s amenable to takeout, delivery, and drive-throughs,” she said, adding the same is true of meatless meat.

On an ethical level, Americans who’ve been reading about how thousands of meatpacking workers are contracting Covid-19 due to unsafe working conditions might prefer to opt for plant-based products. While meat plants require workers to stand shoulder to shoulder as they kill and take apart animals, the facilities manufacturing plant-based products don’t need their workers to be so tightly packed together and working at warp speed. Impossible Foods said that workers are able to maintain social distancing and are provided with masks.

There are other reasons why getting meat from plants is ethically preferable to getting it from animals — and the coronavirus crisis is shining a spotlight on them.

“People don’t like to be contributing to climate change and biodiversity collapse and pandemics. It feels icky, so we try not to talk about it,” Konrad said. “But it’s in these moments when the gruesome reality of animal agriculture pierces into our consciousness — because of Covid or whatever else — that we start to wake up.”


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