Foodservice Operators Promote Plant-Forward Menus

Is beef the new coal in a climate-focused world?

May 18, 2021

Plant-based Burger

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—Restaurants are going meatless. Colleges offer “plant-forward” menus. The digital brand Epicurious has stopped posting beef recipes. And the Culinary Institute of America is promoting “plant-forward” menus, reports Fortune. Industry observers believe the trend is global and growing, and beef could be the new “coal”.

“Beef is under a whole lot of pressure,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of Yale University’s Program on Climate Change Communications. “It was the shift in market forces that was the death knell for coal. And it’s the same thing here. It’s going to be the shift in consumer tastes and preferences, not some regulation.”

Currently, 70% of Americans surveyed agree it would be healthier if the country consumed less meat, according to a 2020 survey by Datassential. Beef cattle have been accused to causing climate change because they belch methane, a potent greenhouse gas. In total, they account for 3.7% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and nearly half of all agricultural emissions, according to Inside Climate News.

In addition to climate concerns, consuming beef is linked to certain health issues. Yet, U.S. consumption of beef ticked up slightly during the 2020 pandemic, to 55.8 pounds per person. The consumption rate has been slowly rising since 2015 after plunging during the 2007-09 Great Recession. Consumption last year remained 11.4% below 2006 and nearly 40% below peak 1970s levels, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.

While popular culinary personalities encourage plant-centric meals, the trend poses issues in the nation’s Heartland, where cattle and the rows of corn grown for animal feed are central to livelihood and identity. More than a third of U.S. farms and ranches are beef cattle operations, making it the single largest segment of U.S. agriculture.

American consumers have shown an interest in faux meat products. To decrease competition, cattle producers responded by pushing for state laws banning manufacturers from using common meat terms. At the federal level, Tom Vilsack, secretary, U.S. Agricultural Department, has said the Biden Administration’s climate initiatives won’t target meat consumption.

However, a March report from Boston Consulting Group announced the beginning of a “protein transformation” and predicted meat alternatives would make up 11-22% of the global protein market by 2035. A study from Kearney predicts global meat sales will begin to drop by 2025 and decline 33% by 2040 as alternatives take away market share.

Another indication of the trend is a consortium of 41 colleges including Harvard, Stanford and Kansas State University, which joined in a “Menus of Change” collaborative to encourage students to eat healthier, more climate-friendly diets. Sophie Egan, co-director of the university collaborative, said the initiative targets young people to shape food preferences at a time of life when most are more adventurous and still forming identities and tastes for a lifetime. Students are especially open to dishes inspired by global cuisines that use less meat.

“We know trends start with the youngest generations,” Egan said. “They’re coming into the dining hall three times a day, sometimes for years. That’s sculpting their food identities for many years to come.”

To see more on how plant-based foods are a growing segment of foodservice, check out the May issue of NACS magazine, which includes “Plant-Based Food Takes Root,” a feature about the wide range of plant-based food offerings on the market and how some c-store retailers are using them to attract customers.