CHICAGO — Add Conagra Brands, Inc. to the roster of food companies that see significant upside in the market for meat alternatives. Nestle S.A. and Tyson Foods, Inc. both recently outlined the opportunities they see in the emerging category. On June 27, Conagra Brands threw its hat into the ring.

“Based on our analysis of product substitution in other categories, almond milk for cow's milk as an example, we can reasonably predict the opportunity for plant-based meat alternatives,” said Sean Connolly, chairman and chief executive officer, during a conference call with financial analysts to discuss fiscal 2019 results. “And here is where it gets really exciting because the opportunity shouldn’t be viewed as just a percentage of fresh meat. We think the opportunity is a percentage of all foods that contain meat.

“Based on this view, our analysis shows that plant-based meat alternatives could achieve a 15% share of both of these market segments. That means the opportunity here could be in the range of $30 billion just in the U.S. And you know, there’s even more opportunity internationally.”

To capitalize on the perceived opportunity Conagra Brands plans to leverage the Gardein brand, which was a part of the Pinnacle Foods acquisition in 2018. Mr. Connolly said Gardein currently has sales of more than $170 million, is the second largest brand in the meat alternative space and that the brand has quadrupled in size over the past four years.

Gardein plant-based products, Conagra Brands

The brand has two manufacturing plants in Richmond, B.C., and Hagerstown, Md. Additional processing capacity is expected to be operational this fall and will give Gardein the ability to grow, according to Conagra.

“We anticipate that capacity will be used to produce more than just burgers,” Mr. Connolly said. “While plant-based burgers are getting a lot of press these days, it’s instructive to take a step back and look at what's really going on in meat consumption.

“Burgers are important but this market extends well beyond beef patties or even beef. Chicken is by far the most popular animal protein in the U.S., both in home and away from home. I would also highlight the significant consumption of pork, hotdogs and fish.”

Innovation on tap from the company includes a meatless burger, which Mr. Connolly called an underdeveloped part of the Gardein business. Conagra also plans to introduce meatless hot dogs and sausage products.

Cobranding also will be central to Conagra’s go-to-market strategy as it pairs Gardein products with such brands as Healthy Choice, Birds Eye, Marie Callendar’s and Udi’s.

Gardein Conagra Brands co-branded products

“To the degree we sell pure-blood meat product, so a chicken alternative, a burger alternative, a hotdog alternative, a sausage alternative, that will stand alone as a Gardein brand,” Mr. Connolly said. “But one of the things that we’ve learned over and over and over again at Conagra is that the name of the game is velocity and velocity is always stronger when it’s not a new brand in an established space, for example single-serve frozen meals, but it’s an icon brand that has brought modern attributes into that space.

“We are doing similar things right now, by the way, in our sweet treats business with Duncan Hines Perfect Size, where we cobranded with Oreo. This is a way to real quickly breakthrough at the point of purchase and make it immediately evident to the consumer within two seconds flat what they’re getting and give them confidence that it’s going to be a good eating experience.”

Mr. Connolly emphasized that Gardein’s history and established presence in the meat alternative market makes Conagra Brands well positioned to capitalize on consumer interest in the category.

“The brand already provides a diversified portfolio of products, particularly in the underappreciated alternative to chicken segment,” he said. “And if there's a segment of the meat space that consumers care about, there's a good chance that Gardein is already there or will be soon with a deliciously meat-free product.”