Georgia’s big chicken dilemma: Will plant-based imitators take off?

In era of fake meat, poultry farmers could be in crosshairs

Fake chicken has crossed the road into the self-proclaimed Poultry Capital of the World. And it might hint at eventual trouble for Georgia’s massive chicken industry.

At a sprawling Kroger grocery in Gainesville, a city just northeast of metro Atlanta with a Poultry Park and a monument topped by a statue of a chicken, plant-based meat substitutes fill refrigerated cases near where the animal version has long ruled the roost. Similar options are available for Ingles shoppers farther south in Hall County and at intown Atlanta stores from Whole Foods to Walmart.

The plant offerings can range from imitation corn dogs to no-fish fillets. But more meat imitators — specifically more chicken-like options — are coming to a grocery or restaurant near you.

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“That’s crazy,” said Kyle Whitmire, a stock trader who shopped at Ingles without realizing imitators minus the cluck have made it into his local store. “I want the real thing the way the good Lord made it.”

Russell McGee’s views on non-meat meats shifted after recent problems with his pancreas. He got tough love at the doctor’s office about his diet. Now, he’s at least open to the idea of pretend chicken.

“I’d try it,” said McGee, a Gainesville trucker who delivers feed to farms, including local chicken houses. “I wouldn’t promise I would eat it.”

Georgia is the biggest poultry producer in the nation. Broilers — chicken raised for their meat — are by far the largest agricultural commodity in the state. They are valued at more than $4.4 billion annually — nearly twice as much as Georgia cotton, peanuts, peaches, pecans, blueberries and onions, combined, according to government figures.

Yet even some big players in the chicken business are looking for alternatives to meet customer demands.

"I want the real thing the way the good Lord made it." —Kyle Whitmire of Hall County 

Tyson Foods, the largest U.S. meat producer, recently announced that this summer it will launch nuggets made of pea protein and other vegetable ingredients. Its plans also include a chicken-chickpea mix in sausages and meatballs. In recent days, rival Perdue Farms unveiled chicken nuggets, tenders and patties blended with vegetables. And Chick-fil-A, the Atlanta-based "Eat Mor Chikin" fast-food chain, said it is early in the process of developing menu additions, which reportedly could include an alternative protein in a sandwich.

Retailers have long set aside space for soy burgers and tofu approximations of chicken to satisfy vegetarian shoppers. That’s included makers of chicken alternatives tied to big companies, such as BOCA (part of Kraft Heinz), Gardein (part of Pinnacle Foods) and MorningStar Farms (part of Kellogg Company). It also includes smaller businesses such as Asheville, N.C.-based No Evil Foods, which launched in 2014 in farmers markets and now is available in some Kroger, Walmart, Ingles, Whole Foods Market and other stores around the nation.

Now, a boom in a new generation of more meat-like plant-based alternatives has picked up steam nationally, with buzz around beefish burgers, including the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat. Unlike many past offerings, they're designed to appeal to the far larger segment of Americans who still eat meat but are open to alternatives at least some of the time.

A number of restaurant chains are jumping on board. Among the latest is Burger King, which is testing what it calls the Impossible Whopper in Columbus, Ga., and elsewhere, with plans for a national roll out this year of the sandwich with a "veggie burger that bleeds."

Not everything tastes like chicken

Chicken substitutes have been a harder sell.

Earlier this year, Beyond Meat pulled its only chicken-like product off the market. “Unfortunately, our Chicken Strips weren’t delivering the same plant-based meat experience as some of our more popular products,” it stated on its website. The company assured consumers that it has a team of chefs and scientists working on a better version. Rival Impossible Foods has yet to launch a chicken imitator, though a spokesperson said the company is researching all meat, fish and dairy products.

It might seem like chicken would be easy to tackle. After all, virtually everything is supposed to taste like chicken. And Americans eat more of it than any other meat. But replicating chicken turns out to be an especially difficult business challenge.

Fabricating the look, texture and taste of whole muscle, like a chicken breast, is harder to master than making a ground-up product such as a burger, experts say. And because chicken tends to be significantly less expensive than beef per pound, it isn’t as tempting a financial target.

“You don’t have as much margin to play around with,” said Zak Weston, an analyst with the nonprofit Good Food Institute.

Chicken also hasn’t carried the same level of health worries that have besieged red meat, though the nutritional makeup of some of the latest imitation burgers is often similar to real beef.

And the environmental benefits of a replacement chicken aren’t as great as they are for alternatives to beef. According to the World Resources Institute, while the poultry industry can have animal welfare issues, “beef production requires about seven times more land and emits seven times more greenhouse gases as chicken per gram of protein.”

‘Absolutely room for improvement’

“Ground beef, that is the first battleground,” said Will Sawyer, a Marietta-based animal protein economist with CoBank, a large lender to U.S. agribusiness.

Still to be determined is whether the recent rush of consumers to imitation burgers will take hold as a lasting trend. If other meats are caught up in the rush, it may hit bacon before whole breast chicken, Sawyer said. “I continue to think that chicken is in the safest place.”

Some in the poultry industry also believe they have breathing room.

“It is something that is on our radar for sure, but we are not too worried about any impact in the foreseeable future,” Tom Super of the National Chicken Council wrote in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Still, the plant-based burger industry has shown that markets can change fast when businesses invest heavily to create alternatives for a public that still likes meat. The U.S. meat substitutes market has more than doubled in the last five years, according to Euromonitor International. It is only a fraction of the size of the overall meat market, but it’s expected to continue to grow at a far faster pace, jumping 74% by 2023, according to the market research provider.

"Ground beef, that is the first battleground." —Will Sawyer, a Marietta-based animal protein economist with CoBank

Chicken substitutes are farther behind on that innovation front, said Weston of the Good Food Institute. “Existing plant-based chicken products on the market are good, but there is absolutely room for improvement.”

He equates the potential to what has happened in the U.S. milk industry. Plant-based options began showing up on grocery cases not in some distant vegan section but right beside the animal versions, offering a diversity of flavors. Overall milk sales are down, but plant-based milk now accounts for 13% of the market.

Most people who buy the newcomers are also still drinking cows milk, he said. “It’s about consumers having a little bit of extra choice,” said Weston, suggesting plant-based meats could account for 15% of the overall U.S. meat market over the next 10 or 15 years.

Noel White, the chief executive of Tyson Foods, which has more than 4,000 Georgia employees, said in a recent press release about launching plant-based nuggets that “For us, this is about ‘and’ – not ‘or.’ We remain firmly committed to our growing traditional meat business and expect to be a market leader in alternative protein, which is experiencing double-digit growth and could someday be a billion-dollar business for our company.”

In the heart of Georgia’s chicken country, others are watching.

“You have to be aware of the competition,” said John Wright, the vice president of operations for Fieldale Farms, based in Baldwin.

The Georgia-based poultry producer relies on 4,200 employees and a network of about 400 growers to help it process three million birds a week. The company isn’t pursuing a plant-based meat alternative like the far-larger Tyson is. It has, though, made other shifts. In January, Fieldale launched a version of its Springer Mountain Farms brand with feed that is GMO free.

“To stick our head in the sand and say there’s not going to be change would be foolish,” Wright said.

By the numbers

Georgia's poultry industry is the biggest in the nation, and broilers (chicken raised for meat) represent the most valuable agricultural commodity in the state, valued at $4.42 billion in 2017. Compare that to the value of some other well-known Georgia agriculture products: cotton ($902 million), peanuts ($825 million), pecans ($401 million), blueberries ($227 million), onions ($141 million) and peaches ($30 million).

Last year, Georgia produced 1.36 billion broilers (chicken raised for meat), followed by Arkansas (1.09 billion), Alabama (1.12 billion) and North Carolina (874 million).

The overall U.S. market for meat dwarfs the meat substitutes business in retail value. But the market for meat substitutes is growing at a far faster rate, according to figures from market research provider Euromonitor International:

Meat: U.S. 2018 retail value - $78,458,600,000. Growth from 2013-2018 - 7.1%. Growth forecast for 2018-2023 - 5%.

Meat substitutes: U.S. 2018 retail value - $1,436,300,000. Growth from 2013-2018 - 104.65. Growth forecast for 2018-2023 - 74.2%.

Sources: University of Georgia Farm Gate Value Report, National Chicken Council, Euromonitor International