Plant-based meat alternatives, both refrigerated and frozen, have experienced robust growth during the COVID-19 pandemic, although both the dollar and volume sales are a fraction of total frozen and fresh meat sales, Anne-Marie Roerink, president of 210 Analytics, reported.
“Growth rates are truly just one part of a bigger story in the red-hot protein market during this unprecedented time,” she said.
Since the onset of COVID-19 in early March, 210 Analytics and research firm IRI partnered to understand the total effect of grocery shopping patterns on frozen and fresh meat alternatives.
As with meat sales, meat alternative sales have seen tremendous gains since early March, when COVID-19 upended many grocery shopping patterns. In fact, Roerink reported that dollar and volume sales gains versus the same week in 2019 have been in the double digits for 13 weeks running.
Year-over-year sales gains peaked during the first of the two panic-buying weeks at a 152% increase versus the same week in 2019. Since then, there have been small fluctuations, and sales gains since the middle of May have tapered off.
Data show a strong performance for volume sales as well, with gains peaking during the panic-buying weeks at a 135% increase versus the same week in 2019. Volume sales gains have trailed dollar gains since the onset of COVID-19. The gap was at its widest during the week ending May 17, at 15 percentage points, and narrowed slightly Memorial Day week at 13 points — signaling continued inflationary pressure.
According to Roerink, frozen plant-based meat alternatives represent the majority share of total sales. During the week ending May 24, frozen plant-based meat alternatives generated just shy of $15 million in sales versus just over $10 million for refrigerated plant-based meat alternatives. To compare, meat generated more than $1.5 billion in sales during this same week.
Roerink said refrigerated plant-based meat alternative sales have been near equal to fresh lamb sales, each generating just over $10 million in sales during the week of May 24.
However, through the pandemic, refrigerated plant-based meat alternatives have consistently outpaced their frozen counterparts in dollar and volume growth. Refrigerated alternatives were up 258% during the first of the two panic-buying weeks -- the high -- and gains have since averaged around a 120% increase versus the same week last year. Roerink noted that there was a slight drop during the most recent week. However, even before the COVID-19 effects in March, refrigerated meat alternatives were also posting triple-digit increases versus the year before.
Meat versus meat alternative
Despite the gains each week, Roerink said refrigerated meat alternative dollar sales are only a fraction of meat department sales. This, she said, means percentage gains are based on very different sales numbers and reflect very different absolute dollar gains. For instance, during the month of March, which includes the two big panic-buying weeks, meat sales totaled $6.6 billion, while plant-based meat alternatives were $112 million.
Further, the meat department has generated an additional $5.7 billion in sales since COVID-19 emerged, compared to an additional $66.6 million for refrigerated plant-based meat alternatives. In volume, an additional 1.2 billion lb. of meat and poultry were sold between March 8 and May 24 versus 7.8 million lb. of refrigerated plant-based meat alternatives.
Because of these absolute dollar gain differences, Roerink noted that the share of refrigerated plant-based meat alternatives actually dipped during the pandemic. As a percentage of the total (meat department sales plus refrigerated plant-based meat alternative sales), the share for plant-based alternatives stood at 0.66% during the week ending March 1. The share for plant-based meat alternatives has since dropped to a low of 0.50% during the week of April 12, but as a tight meat supply pulled down meat dollar gains in the most recent two weeks, the share for refrigerated plant-based meat alternatives climbed back up to its pre-pandemic percentage of 0.66%.
The volume share for meat alternatives showed a similar pattern, Roerink relayed.
During the week of March 1, the share of refrigerated plant-based meat alternatives compared to total pounds sold for meat plus alternatives stood at 0.32%. Despite percentage gains being much higher for refrigerated plant-based alternatives, the absolute gains in pounds for meat versus meat alternatives caused the share to drop throughout the pandemic, dipping as low as 0.22% during the week of April 12. In the two most recent weeks, when tight meat supply prompted much lower pound gains for meat than seen in prior weeks, the share of refrigerated plant-based alternatives gained, ending at 0.33% in the most recent week.
As for what’s ahead, Roerink noted that the past 13 weeks have shown tremendous strength for plant-based meat alternative sales and that the coming weeks are critical in the process of establishing what the next several months will look like.
“Nearly all U.S. states have started to partially reopen or have plans to do so. As states begin to enter their various reopening phases, the economic and social readiness of consumers to re-engage with foodservice will become clearer," she said. "For the foreseeable future, it is likely that grocery retailing will continue to capture an above-average share of the food dollar.”