Plant burgers that are designed to look and taste like beef have been on the market since 2016.
Illinois beef producers are paying attention to consumer demand for plant-based burgers, but they still have a huge competitive advantage over Beyond Burgers and Impossible Burgers, researcher Maggie Cornelius said.
Cornelius studied the growing appeal of beef look-alike burgers as a graduate at the University of Illinois. In 2020, plant-based burgers accounted for 1.4% of burger sales, Cornelius said.
That figure counts plant-based meat as a form of meat so it is somewhat confusing, Cornelius explained.
“It is unclear if plant-based meat has taken 1.4% of sales from meat or if it is expanding the pie for meat sales,” Cornelius said.
Price is a huge barrier when it comes to the plant-based vs real beef burger competition, Cornelius said. Pound for pound on grocery shelves, plant-based burgers cost at least one dollar more than the real thing, she said.
Livestock producers can undercut the price of plant burgers because they sell whole animals, giving them an array of additional products that cost significantly more than ground beef, Cornelius said.
“Plant-based meat is a viable substitute for ground beef, but not a viable substitute for more valuable cuts of meat like steaks and ribeyes,” she said.
What would happen if the price of plant-based meat became competitive with ground beef? Cornelius estimates that 25% to 30% of consumers would consider switching to plant burger substitutes.
Beef producers would still enjoy a competitive advantage, she said.
If a quarter of the people who now buy beef hamburgers switched to plant-based burgers, that would leave beef suppliers with a surplus of ground beef that they could use to undercut the price of plant-based burger, Cornelius said.
Beef producers could also opt to sell their ground beef abroad, where there is a growing demand for beef.
Cornelius is an economist. Her study did not compare the appeal of plant-burgers based on taste or environmental impact or health benefits, she said.
“There are many reasons that consumers give when they choose plant-based burger over beef hamburger,” Cornelius said. “For instance, many consumers believe that plant-based burgers are a healthier alternative to beef burgers. That claim has not been verified.”
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