Last month KFC released a limited run of vegan fried chicken in the US. Yes that’s right… “vegan” fried chicken. The vegan range of menu items was self-described by KFC as “confusing but delicious” and only available for one day at a single store in Atlanta.

Before you vomit at the thought of vegan chicken, the taste is (apparently) identical to the Colonel’s famed “secret” recipe fried chicken. And consumers seemed to agree, it sold out in under five hours. Customer feedback from the trial will be considered as to whether KFC will move to a broader rollout nationally and to global markets.

The move was in partnership with Beyond Meat, a plant-based meat substitute designed to mimic the look and taste of real meat. And it’s not the first time Beyond Meat have partnered with quick service restaurant chains. In fact, it’s one area Australia is actually ahead of the curve. Beyond Burger have had partnerships offering their meatless burger alternatives with both Lord of the Fries and Grill’d locally for some time now.

We’re seeing a re-emergence of retailers and brands offering vegetarian options and getting onboard the meat-free bandwagon. In partnership with Impossible Meats (Beyond Meats biggest competitor), Burger King announced a plant-based version of their iconic Whopper burger called the Impossible Whopper. Earlier in the week Taco Bell (also in partnership with Impossible Meat), launched a new vegan menu. And there’s many more brands whom have indicated they’ll consider partnerships in the future to enter the meat-free space.

Veganism or meat-free isn’t anything new, so why are we seeing the current re-emergence in it?

As a nation, we deep-seated relationship with meat. Australia is one of the biggest per-capita red-meat eaters in the world. Yet overall meat consumption is starting to show signs that it is on the decline. Roy Morgan stats show that the number of people who identify as vegetarian has risen from 11% of the population in FY15 to 13% in FY19, an increase in 20%. Also just as interesting, were the number of consumers who identified as not vegetarian but consciously made the decision to eat less meat, up 6% for the same period.

This may be in part due to the fact that as a population, Australia is getting older. And as we age, we generally eat less overall and our portions of protein become smaller. However it is more likely a shift in general consumer attitude towards meat and a rise in consumers adopting a flexitarian or casual vegetarian diet. For example, consumers who eat meat less frequently but don’t necessarily reject it entirely.

Research (which mind you, was conducted by Grill’d) showed that more than a third of Australian’s would cut back on their consumption of meat if tastier meat-free options existed. It also revealed that younger Australian’s are more tuned in to the needs of the planet, citing environmental concerns as their primary reason for eating less meat. Whereas older diners were more likely to cut back for health reasons.

This shift in attitude has seen many manufacturers, supermarkets and restaurants scramble to cash in on this burgeoning vegan market. Vegan food and meat substitutes have had a bad rap in the past, however perceptions are now changing. Technology has now advanced to the point where meat-free substitutes now closely mimic the taste and texture of meat, making it easier for consumers to make the switch. Beyond Meat is even sold in the butcher section at supermarkets. Grocer Sainbury’s launched an actual “meat-free butcher” pop-up in the UK, designed to challenge consumers preconceptions of meat-free alternatives and remove some of the mystique around plant-based cooking. The store was kitted out like a traditional butcher, with plant-based versions of traditional meat favourites like steaks, burger patties, mince and sausages.

Is the trend here to stay?

Whilst the majority of Australian’s are unlikely to give up meat completely, the signs point to the fact that a segment of consumers are reducing their red meat intake and adopting flexitarian diets. Whether it’s eating out, ordering in or cooking at home, we’re likely to see these meat-free alternatives here to stay and will continue to see retailers choose to further play in the space.

Exactly how big the trend will be is yet to be seen. Whilst environmentally friendly, questions have begun to emerge as to whether these alternatives are actually healthier. These meat alternatives are also costly, so it will be interesting to see whether consumers have the appetite to pay the premium over the long term. However we see the trend as part of the overall market shift to towards personal wellness and greater awareness amongst consumers of social responsibility. And it’s particularly interesting seeing how fast-food chains are reacting to the trend and have changed dramatically over the past few years.

And it’s a profitable trend. Analysts predict that if Beyond Meat, which shares have already grown over 500% since it’s IPO in May this year, were to get a partnership with McDonalds (the holy grail of fast food) their share price could rise by up to 30%. It’s definitely a trend to keep an eye on.

Grill’d have pledged that half of its menu will be plant-based by 2020.

Author Trent Rigby

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