What's on the horizon for meat alternatives?

The meat alternatives category is an innovation hotspot, but the regulatory context is complex, unharmonised and rapidly evolving. Insights from horizon scanning help de-risk this aspect of product development.


As world population growth continues, the availability and provision of foods containing protein is under the spotlight. Ensuring people have access to affordable, healthy and sustainable sources of this essential nutrient presents a significant challenge.

One avenue receiving much attention is alternative protein sources, such as plant-based and cultured meat. Our sister company Sagentia Innovation recently published a paper looking at the drivers and opportunities associated with the plant-based protein movement. Clearly, the meat alternatives category holds much potential. But it’s important to understand the complexity of global regulations which impact these products.

Maximising opportunities while navigating existing and potential challenges is no mean feat. However, horizon scanning helps streamline the journey.


About horizon scanning

International food policy can evolve rapidly, and policy changes can be hard to predict without expert insight. This is especially true when it comes to emerging categories such as meat alternatives.

Horizon scanning improves the understanding and management of upcoming risks in target markets. It provides local and international visibility to enable more informed planning.

The process involves three core steps to generate insights that can shape product development strategies:

  • Assess the level of risk in each market
  • Identify key influencers
  • Extract information from key influencers

We applied the process to the alternative meats category and revealed five top-level insights.


1. Dietary guidelines are evolving 

Global dietary change is one of the major topics of the decade. A recent report by the international think tank Chatham House, supported by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), underlines this. It suggests that one of the ways to reduce pressure on land and create a more sustainable food system is “to change dietary patterns to reduce food demand and encourage more plant-based diets”.

A recent global review of dietary guidelines by Herforth et al. reported that half of countries with key messages about protein mention both animal and plant sources. Furthermore, 23% of the guidelines reviewed advise limiting or moderating meat consumption. For instance, Canada revised its dietary guidelines in 2019 to emphasise the benefits of shifting towards a more plant-based diet. 


2. Sustainability strategies are having an impact

The European Commission’s Farm to Fork strategy outlines 27 actions to transform the EU food system by 2030 as part of the Green Deal. These include reducing consumption of red and processed meat as well as encouraging a higher intake of fruits and vegetables.

Also, in accordance with the Green Deal, DG SANTE’s Food Policy Strategy (2020-2024) emphasises alternative proteins and meat substitutes. This strategy is being followed by EU member states with national interpretations. For example, Denmark is prioritising the development of plant-based foods with high protein content using new technologies, whereas France announced a national plant protein strategy that aims to increase local production of vegetable proteins for human nutrition and feed.


3. Consumer perception varies between markets

It has been found that consumers have polarised views on meat alternatives in developed markets such as the United States and Europe. More specifically, a 2021 study in Germany Consumers’ associations, perceptions and acceptance of meat and plant-based meat alternatives found meat alternatives are associated with the terms ‘vegan and vegetarian’ as well as ‘disgust’.

Looking beyond Western markets, a 2019 survey Consumer perceptions of plant-based and clean meat in the USA, India, and China concluded that meat consumption is likely to increase in China and India as more consumers can afford it. However, the authors also reported that urban, well-educated and high-income consumers are more likely to purchase plant-based meat and cultured meat than those in the US. According to the survey, these markets represent high-value opportunities for manufacturers of plant-based meat alternatives. 


4. Labelling presents a challenge

In 2019, the US Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA) published a standard for the labelling of plant-based meat alternatives with the consensus of its 160 members. The same association also released voluntary standards for labelling plant-based milks in 2018 and plant-based yogurts in 2020. 

These standards allow manufacturers to use qualifiers such as ‘plant-based,’ ‘vegan,’ ‘meatless’, ‘meat-free’, ‘dairy-free’, ‘non-dairy’, ‘vegetarian’, ‘veggie’ or ‘made from plants’. However, in practice using these descriptors is not easy due to ongoing policy battles at federal and state level. 

The EU is also looking closely at the labelling of vegan and vegetarian products. In 2018, the European Commission approved the Mandatory food labelling Non-Vegetarian/Vegetarian/Vegan initiative, which proposed pictorial labels on all food products to reduce ambiguity for vegetarian and vegan consumers. 


5. Descriptions and definitions are a complex area 

Currently, there are no legal definitions for vegetarian, vegan or plant-based foods in the EU and interpretations of the term ‘plant-based’ vary. In Luxembourg, the term can be used even if some ingredients are not of plant origin. Sweden refers to vegan and vegetarian definitions in the Swedish National Food Agency (SNFA) Guidelines. Denmark assesses the use of the term on a case-by-case basis and such products should be primarily based on plant material. Nevertheless, if a product labelled ‘plant-based’ contained ingredients of animal origin, it would most likely be considered ‘misleading’ from an EU regulatory standpoint. 

In the US, the Real Marketing Edible Artificials Truthfully Act (the Real MEATS Act) was introduced into Congress in 2019. Amending the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, it clearly defines ‘beef’ and ‘beef products’ for labelling purposes to avoid confusion with plant-based alternatives and help consumers make informed decisions. Moreover, the Act requires the use of the term ‘imitation’ on labels for meat alternatives. However, this is not yet implemented in all states


Leveraging the opportunity  

The horizon scanning exercise outlined here offers a quick snapshot of the various factors currently influencing policies and regulations for meat alternatives. Nevertheless, it underlines the fact that this market has much potential for growth and innovation. Food businesses that monitor, understand and manage the opportunity and its attendant risks will be best placed to benefit. 

Here at Leatherhead Food Research, we offer regulatory horizon scanning services to provide clarity on forthcoming food and beverage developments in your target markets. Find out more here. 


Get in touch with the team at [email protected] for more information. 


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