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Rising sales of plant-based meat is not matched by declines in actual meat consumption

A new study finds that a campaign to promote plant-based meat increased sales by 57% . . .but didn’t make a dent in meat consumption.
October 21, 2022

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A new study finds that a UK campaign to promote plant-based alternatives managed to increase their consumption by an impressive 57%. But, none of this made a dent in the consumption of meat. 

The focus of the study was the UK’s ‘Veganuary’ campaign, a charity event embraced by many retailers, that encourages people to forfeit meat for a month and attracts tens of thousands of participants each year. This kind of intervention is seen as increasingly important in the country, where average meat consumption is significantly higher than the global average. In fact, bringing meat consumption in line with UK government guidelines would require a decline of 78% just for red and processed meat. 

Veganuary is designed to help people make the transition by making plant-based alternatives—products made from the likes of soy, tofu, and pea proteins—“more available, accessible, and affordable,” says Joanna Trewern, a sustainability researcher at the University of Surrey, and lead author on the study. The campaign runs with a range of in-store promotions, discounts, and meal ideas for meat alternatives, to increase the visibility of these foods. The idea is that an uptick in the purchases of meat alternatives will replace the meat itself. 

To find out whether this thinking plays out in reality, Trewern and her team looked at sales of plant-based alternatives across 170 countrywide stores of one supermarket chain that ran the Veganuary campaign in 2021. This, they compared with sales of meat and other products. They also compared sales during, before, and after the event. 

When they tallied it all up, the researchers found that stores had received a striking 57% increase in sales of plant-based alternatives compared to the period before Veganuary started. Purchases tapered off after the campaign ended—but still remained 15% higher than they were before it began. This suggests such interventions “can have a ‘halo’ effect that lasts beyond their removal,” Trewern explains—providing an extended window of opportunity, perhaps, to encourage consumer preferences towards these foods. 

However, the unexpected flipside is that despite the increase in plant-based purchases, people ate no less chicken, pork, and beef. In fact, trends show that meat sales remained remarkably stable and insulated before, during, and after the event—representing 26.52% of sales before the campaign, staying at 26.51% while it was underway, and declining only fractionally to 26.32 afterwards. 

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Instead of replacing meat with alternatives, it seems consumers may just be adding these new foods to their trolleys on top of their regular shop. 

There are lessons to be taken from this, the researchers think. On the one hand, it provides robust and hopeful evidence that retail interventions do work to increase the interest in, and appetite for, plant-based foods. But on the other hand, it shows that for this increase to be meaningful and have a real impact, we need simultaneous efforts to bring down meat consumption on the other side. 

These may take the form of policies to increase the price point on meat while making plant-based alternatives cheaper to eat, the researchers say. 

Another insight from the study could be useful for retailers and policymakers moving forward: the data revealed that purchases of plant-based alternatives were higher at larger stores, and in areas with lower average income. 

“This suggests two things,” Trewern says. “Consumer behavior is more susceptible to influence at larger stores, and price promotions that improve affordability…can be an important lever to increase adoption” where buying economically is a bigger concern. (The latter requires more research to verify, she adds.) 

In terms of increasing the uptake of meat alternatives in people’s diets, the researchers did add a caveat. This may require changes to some products, such as plant-based meat analogues. Such products are designed to specifically mimic foods like beef burgers, bacon, and chicken filets, and they make up an increasing share of meat alternatives. But, they often also contain unhealthy levels of fat and salt. Campaigns to increase the share of meat alternatives shouldn’t undermine the cause by injecting unhealthy food into the market, the researchers caution. 

Overall, the study’s nuanced look at Veganuary reveals some cracks in the logic of the campaign. But it also highlights ways to make such interventions more effective in steering us away from meat.

“Just promoting plant-based products isn’t enough to deliver healthy, sustainable diets,” Trewern says. “Additional action is needed.”

Trewern et. al. “Does promoting plant-based products in Veganuary lead to increased sales, and a reduction in meat sales? A natural experiment in a supermarket setting.” Public Health Nutrition. 2022.

Image: ©Anthropocene Magazine

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