Plant-based astro-turfing

It’s hardly news that plant-based alternatives to meat are becoming a big thing. With major chains like Burger King and KFC trying out meat alternatives, it’s safe to say that this is becoming thoroughly mainstream. Whilst some consumers are seeking out alternatives to meat because of ethical and/or environmental concerns, a growing number are also shifting to so-called ’flexi-tarian’ diets that reduce the amount of meat consumption.
The peak cultural reference point for the UK indicating the size of the shift was the decision of Greggs to introduce a vegan sausage roll. We appear to have reached the inflection point at which people moaning about vegan food have become more irritating than pious advocates of a vegan lifestyle. At this rate even Piers Morgan will think making jokes about vegans is old hat, in about five years time.
But not everyone is happy. For example, if you tuned into this year’s Superbowl you may have seen an ad, based on a spelling bee competition, attacking some of the artifical ingredients in meat substitutes. Or as the ad put it: ’If you can’t spell it or pronounce it maybe you shouldn’t be eating it.’
The ad pointed to a website – CleanFoodFacts.com – which features lot of commentary about the ingredients in plant-based foods, and possible health risks. The site is headlined as CCF Health and Wellness, suggesting a concern with consumer safety, but it’s pretty clear that the intent of the ads is to put people off meat alternatives. One states: ’If you’re trying to avoid ultra-processed foods with artificial ingredients… drop the fake meat and stick to the real thing.’
Of course, ads during the Superbowl don’t come cheap, so the public-spirited types behind the website must have some (non-vegan) dough behind them. In fact a line at the bottom of the website states that ’CCF Health + Wellness is sponsored by the Center for Consumer Freedom’ to which it links. The CCF site in turn, which also features lots of articles raising concerns about meat alternatives, states: ’The Center for Consumer Freedom is supported by restaurants, food companies and thousands of individual consumers. From farm to fork, from urban to rural, our friends and supporters include businesses, their employees, and their customers.’
So it looks like we’re starting to see a pushback on meat alternatives funded by some of those who produce and sell the real thing. We’ve been doing this kind of work for long enough to recognise a business-backed lobby group portraying itself as a representative of concerned citizens when we see one (ahem… Main Street Investors Coalition). But it’s interesting to see this pop up in the relatively new field of meat substitutes. Last year there was a big spike in shorting around Beyond Meat, as some market participants felt plant-based valuations looked a bit… well… unreal. In contrast the appearance of a thinly-disguised corporate lobby group attacking the safety and nutritional value of meat alternatives suggest the existing industry thinks it has a fight on its hands.

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