Two interesting pieces of fake-meat news slipped through the wires in the past couple of weeks.
The first was that fast-food giant Burger King had slashed the prices of its Impossible Whopper as sales of the faux-meat burgers started to dip after last year's introduction.
• Fake meat and Impossible burgers - the challenge for NZ producers
• Impossible Burger faces another big hurdle
• Impossible Foods is making a new fake meat: Pork
• Impossibly vegan: Burger King's plant-based burger is cooked with meat
And the second, even more extreme, was the decision by Tim Hortons to pull all Beyond Meat products from its coffee and doughnut shops across two of Canada's biggest provinces.
The news had an immediate impact on Beyond Meat, knocking almost 4 per cent off the stock that soared more than four-fold since the company went public last year.
This marks a big reality check for these companies as well as all others built on the faux-meat promise that we're in the middle of a "cultural shift" which is seeing consumers turn away from actual meat.
There is certainly a growing trend of vegetarianism in some segments of society, but there's also some evidence that the overall impact has been somewhat overstated.
Americans, for instance, are eating more real meat than ever. Total red meat and poultry consumption is expected to rise to 102kg per person this year from 101kg in 2019, according to USDA data. Even at Burger King, there's no evidence that the meat-free option has led to less meat consumption. Impossible Whopper sales were not cutting into regular Whopper sales, UBS analyst Steven Strycula told Bloomberg in December.
New Zealand meat-consumption data from the OECD shows that Kiwis continue to love their meat, despite a decline in red-meat consumption. In 2019, New Zealanders ate 74.9kg of red meat, sheep meat, poultry and pork per capita. This is up significantly from 66.7kg in 2010.
What these numbers show is that New Zealanders aren't necessarily changing their carnivorous ways; it's simply a case of our animal preferences changing. Chicken just happens to be the meat of choice these days.
This is not the first time that marketing behind new food brands has promised a sea change that didn't quite materialise. Several years ago, the fast-casual food scene was hurtling ahead and predictions about the imminent demise of fast-food giants like McDonald's and KFC were thrown around regularly.
This narrative was further buoyed by viral documentaries like Super Size Me that drove home the message that fast food was terrible for you. It looked only a matter of time before the fast-food empire came crashing down.
Fast-forward a few years, and today the likes of McDonald's and KFC continue to hum along just fine, while Subway closed more than 1000 stores in the US last year and fast-casual darling Chipotle spent years battling food-safety woes.
It's notable that despite the hype machine behind the alternative-meat scene, the veritable godfather of fast-food, McDonald's, has taken a more cautious approach, thus far not launching a fake-meat range.
This is an old trick among truly successful companies. It's always better to watch how the others go before diving into a market that's essentially untested. And with the recent moves made by Tim Hortons and Burger King, McDonald's now looks vindicated in treading carefully into this space.
Part of the reason why the fake-meat companies have been so effective at capturing the imagination of the public lies in the damn good story they've told.
They've come swashbuckling into the market, positing themselves as the hero against the villains of the meat industry. And as with any good yarn, there is an element of truth to this. The global meat industry hasn't been great for the environment and there's growing evidence that eating too much meat simply isn't good for you.
This story has again been buoyed by the pop culture documentary scene, which has delivered some brilliant cinema like that recent Game Changers documentary on Netflix. And unsurprisingly, it looks as though it might only be a matter of time until villains of meat are slain by the edgy newcomers.
What this story conveniently leaves out is that people who are worried about meat consumption are perhaps also a little concerned about the idea of their food being made in a lab. While there are growing questions over the impact of meat on health and the environment, there are also legitimate questions about the long-term effects of processed food on our health.
That said, the hype machine will keep churning out great headlines about cultural change and the meat-free future. But don't hold your breath. History has shown time and again that change generally happens far slower than what the most enthusiastic voices might suggest. Especially when it comes to what we eat.