When we released our story about Nestlé launching a meat-like, meatless patty dubbed the “Incredible Burger” last week, it sparked some… backlash from our audience. (To be clear: We welcome comments!) Here are a few examples:

Basically, some readers were skeptical that they could trust Nestlé — which, like most Big Food companies, has a less-than-perfect reputation — to make plant-based food sustainably. These reactions made us at the Spoon wonder: as an eating trend (like plant-based food) goes mainstream, will consumers buy products regardless of the company that makes them?

At first, maybe not so much. During a conversation about the evolving plant-based meat market, The Spoon founder Mike Wolf speculated that earlier in the adoption curve people tend to be more value-driven, seeking out certain products motivated by the ethics of the manufacturing process, the sustainability quotient, or the reputation of the parent company. Early adopters often put more value in the ethics and mission of a product, like how Impossible Foods is out to save the planet by reducing meat consumption.

As Big Food companies like Nestlé concentrate on the meat alternatives space, early adopters might be skeptical of their motives and, therefore, their products. However, as you get to what Wolf calls “the Costco consumer” — one who’s more driven by more by price value than by, well, values — the company behind the product might not mean quite as much. These mainstream consumers aren’t buying the product to make a values statement: rather, they’re selecting it because of its reduced cost, good taste, or maybe even branding. In general, they won’t boycott a product because they don’t like the ethics of the company who makes it.

This sort of apathetic consumerism might grate with the more woke shoppers. But in a weird way, it shouldn’t. Young startups are all well and good, and have been doing a great job drumming up consumer interest in meat-like meat alternatives. However, if plant-based (and, down the road, cell-based) meat has a prayer of actually disrupting the industrial meat industry, Big Food pretty much needs to be involved.

Of course, how they get involved is important, too — in no way should Big Food companies get carte blanche. They shouldn’t use their sizeable market muscles to force out startups who are on a mission, or stifle new companies. Environmental concerns are also top of mind: plants may be more sustainable than meat, but Nestlé still has to be conscious the makings its ingredients, manufacturing processes, and packaging as sustainable as possible.

Tyson Foods has a 5 percent stake in Beyond Meat. (Photo: Beyond Meat.)

All this to say, some people — especially early adopters — might not like how Big Food companies entering the meat-like meat alternatives market with their Incredible burgers and vegan hot dogs. That’s perfectly alright. These objectors don’t have to get their plant-based protein from major CPG companies; there are plenty of other delicious options which, at least from the outside, seem to have the ethical upper hand.

But giant CPG companies like Nestlé have the manufacturing power, global reach, and distribution channels that can help plant-based meat go from (relatively) niche product to mainstream food staple: one that costs the same as or less than conventional meat. In order for alterna-meats to really catch on, they have to be within reach for the “Costco consumer.” And that pretty much inevitably means working with Big Food — even Nestlé.

Do you agree? Is getting Big Food involved the only way that meat alternatives can go mainstream? Sound off in the comments or on Twitter @TheSpoonTech

Leave a Reply