NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The meat industry faces many challenges, particularly as millennial buying power grows and millennial attitudes toward health, the environment and animal welfare begin to dominate.

But meat has great stories to tell, and if it effectively tells them, the industry will continue its dominance at grocery retail and in other channels.

That was the message from Anne-Marie Roerink, principal of 210 Analytics LLC, in her 15th annual Power of Meat address March 2 at the North American Meat Institute and FMI – The Food Industry Associations’ Annual Meat Conference.

“Eating meat is still the norm,” Roerink assured attendees during her presentation. “Meat has the highest sales per labor hour and continues to grow.”

The meat industry generated about $84 billion in revenue last year, compared with just $.8 billion for the plant-based protein industry that many think will make meat obsolete, said Roerink. Just 14% of Americans say they’ve bought a plant-based product. In addition, meat sales and volumes both rose in 2019.

That said, the health, environmental and animal welfare claims that have been made against meat and in favor of plant-based alternatives must be taken very seriously, she said. Younger Americans think much differently than their parents and grandparents, and they are an enormous consumer group that soon will have an ever-larger impact on the food world.

Plant-based dollar sales rose 12% in 2019, and the number of stores selling plant-based increased by 21%.

And it’s not just the hard-core plant-only devotees that are a threat. Roerink said she’s most concerned about flexitarians – people who still eat meat but mix in a significant amount of vegetarian options – a category that now accounts for 12% of all consumers, up from 10% the year before. 

“Everything about American food culture is changing,” Roerink said. “Very shortly, we’re going to see a big shift from boomers to Gen X and millennials.”

A much larger percentage of millennials, for instance, think that the meat industry is bad for the environment. Large numbers also believe that plant-based is a better alternative when it comes to health and concerns related to animal welfare.

The result is that, while plant-based is still just a tiny fraction the size of the meat industry, it’s growing quickly, and meat must fight back to maintain its strength, Roerink said.

One way to do that is by going back to the basic reason people buy one food instead of another: taste. Just 25% of consumers say they buy plant-based because they like the taste.

“That’s a huge opportunity for the meat industry,” Roerink said.

There is also a “if you can’t beat them, join them” approach that will likely become more popular in coming years. Namely, the growth of the blended category – protein products made with a combination of meat and non-meat products.

Forty-one percent of Americans think blended adds more flavor, said Roerink, who called blended an effective “bridge” category for consumers who have concerns about meat but aren’t willing to give it up entirely.

Boosting value-added offerings is another way for meat producers and marketers to lure back consumers who may have strayed into plant-based territory. Almost three in four Americans say they love 1- and 2-person meat options at retail, for instance. Value-added meat sales grew 3.9% in 2019.

The best way to take away what Roerink refers to as consumer “guilt” over buying meat? Transparency.

“We need to make sure we’re explaining our raising processes extremely well,” she said. That includes companies calling out their environmental and animal welfare practices clearly on labels.

And it’s not always enough to use science to fight guilt, fear and emotion that clouds consumers’ attitudes about the industry, Roerink said.

“We need to bring our own passion back to the table. If we do, we have the opportunity to do this for many, many more years.”