The great protein war pits chain against chain

Beyond Meat Burger

Sylvain CharleboisThe great protein war is heating up as several major restaurant chains embrace the plant-based movement while others firmly position themselves as guardians of the mighty meat-eater. It’s getting hard to keep track.

A&W, Canada’s first Beyond Meat ambassador, started it all a little over 12 months ago with its surprisingly successful campaign.

Since then, grocers have all jumped on the Beyond Meat bandwagon. And now many other restaurant chains are making their position on plant-based dieting quite public – so much so that A&W’s pioneering move has been somewhat lost in all the noise about plant-based diets.

In cattle country, where A&W was hated as much as the taxman, beef producers now have many targets to chose from. Tim Hortons, Burger King and Subway, just to name a few, have embraced plant-based products in recent months.

The case made by Restaurant Brands International (RBI) is interesting. Tim Hortons and Burger King, both owned by RBI, appear to be hedging on plant-based dieting. Early in the summer, Tim Hortons added many Beyond Meat products to its menu while Burger King introduced the Impossible Whopper, using Impossible Foods’ patties; both chains are going plant-based, but with different suppliers.

Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, the two leading contenders for top supplier of plant-based products, have had busy summers. As soon as Burger King announced its partnership with Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat made public its association with Subway, followed by one with Dunkin’ Donuts. Then, the international institutional food prep giant Sodexo announced it was working with Impossible Foods.

Confused yet?

Not a week goes by in which we don’t hear about a major restaurant chain going plant-based.

Tim Hortons’ commitment to Beyond Meat points to how inclusive the chain wants to be. Timmy’s is mostly known for its non-meat offerings and now is serving something for everyone.

Burger King’s case is a little more complicated since it makes its money mostly selling burgers. After running pilot programs for a few months in American markets, it’s offering the Impossible Whopper across the U.S.

It didn’t take skeptics long to criticize Burger King’s plant-based move.

Some vegans make the point that the chain intends to cook Impossible Whopper patties on the same grill as patties from “dead cows.” As a result, Burger King is telling customers they can have their Impossible Whopper patties cooked separately if desired. Simply adding a plant-based option to the menu is no longer enough – chains are being held accountable for what goes on in the kitchen as well.

Burger King’s decision to partner with Impossible Foods may seem surprising but the chain was clearly motivated by McDonald’s very public stance on meat consumption.

As Chipotle Mexican Grill and Arby’s did earlier this summer, McDonald’s is doubling down on beef and has no intention of offering meat alternatives anytime soon. In fact, McDonald’s is now selling an enhanced version of its Big Mac and the ads are everywhere – a direct response to what we’ve seen since last year’s Beyond Burger launch by A&W.

Seeing McDonald’s Canada go in any other direction would have been surprising. For a long time, the chain has prided itself on promoting Canadian beef and other commodities grown and produced here. It would have been awkward for McDonald’s to add any plant-based products to its menu.

McDonald’s is also a key stakeholder in the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, an initiative launched to give beef a greener reputation. Its commitment to beef and its customer base remains the same. In 2003, McDonald’s offered a veggie burger, which was awful, and dropped it a few years later as if its failure was almost by design. The chain clearly has no intention of luring those looking for fake animal proteins any time soon.

This summer has become a high point in the protein war, the divisive quest to see a more pluralistic protein marketplace. The way the food service industry is using the emergence of plant-based dieting as a lightning rod seems to be further polarizing our discussion about the future of proteins.

Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, Maple Leaf Foods with its Lightlife product, Montreal-based Vegeat, and many other plant-based product providers are trying to democratize the notion of proteins. As a result, we’re seeing more innovation from the food industry than we have in the last 20 years.

Proteins are making everyone in the food industry think differently about their products, at the meat counter and beyond.

We should be thankful for what’s happening but let’s hope a truce in the protein war occurs soon. A divisive debate is never desirable, especially when food is involved.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

Sylvain is a Troy Media Thought Leader. Why aren’t you?

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By Sylvain Charlebois

Sylvain Charlebois is a Canadian researcher and professor in food distribution and food policy at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. He is Dalhousie's past Dean of the Faculty of Management and is a professor and Director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab.

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