The plant-based meat category continues to recalibrate at retail in 2024. Overall, meat alternatives still hold a niche-sized sliver of dollar sales within the broader fresh and frozen meat categories, with last year’s downward sales trends exacerbated by economic pressure and shifting consumer sentiments.
In this Q&A, Chris DuBois, Executive Vice President and Protein Practice Leader at Circana, spoke with FI to outline the major challenges and priorities for the category in the months ahead.
How would you summarize the retail evolution of plant-based meat in 2023?
2023 was another tough sales year for plant-based meat substitutes, and the category is nearing the end of a long consolidation. Back in 2018 and 2019, plant-based meat expanded rapidly as many manufacturers entered the market and expanded into both the fresh meat case and the frozen case.
The hard truth is that there wasn’t enough room for so many brands because these are two of the most competitive areas in the store. The item turnover every day and total sales value of the case are incredibly high.
For the fresh meat case, it’s like having an average high school athlete show up at the Olympic trials…it’s not the same level of competition.
The last three years have shown how high the competition level will be for meat substitutes to succeed, and the sales declines are the scoreboard that tells the results. Plant-based meat substitutes weren’t strong enough yet to survive in the fresh meat case.
What are the top hurdles you’re seeing for the industry in the year ahead?
Simplify the Labels: For plant-based meat to be successful, the ingredients have to be simple and clear. It’s one of the biggest barriers to future growth, but if it’s solved, it will unlock additional opportunities for the category.
Create the Category Space: Many categories in the frozen case have well-defined space. If you think about your local stores, each one is going to have single-serve meals, pizza, vegetables, etc. For plant-based meat to be successful, it’s going to have to build the space and the traffic to create a long-lasting consumer destination.
What is one thing that you believe food manufacturers should prioritize in 2024 to improve consumer adoption in the U.S.?
Focus on Frozen: This is a very competitive case as well and it is expensive real estate in the store. It’s the natural (consumer-stated) home for plant-based meat, but it’s not a foregone conclusion that plant-based meat will succeed. It has to compete every day and that means the category management blocking and tackling in pricing, assortment, and space in addition to the marketing aspects of keeping it on the shelf and bringing in new customers.
Check out Plant-Based Trends to Watch in 2024 for further insights from DuBois and other industry thought leaders.