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Why are plant-based consumers worried about food safety?

Research by Kerry finds nearly half of consumers are concerned about the safety of meat alternatives
spicy vegan curry burgers with millet, chickpeas and herbs
Shutterstock/Nataliya Arzamasova

As consumer appetite for plant-based proteins grows, so too, do their concerns around food safety.

According to research by Kerry, a taste and nutrition company, nearly half of consumers in North America (49%) are concerned with the food safety of plant-based meat alternatives. In a recent webinar, “The Business of Alt Protein: Unlocking Food Safety in Plant-based Meat,” Kerry offered insights on solving these concerns.

Overall, the categories consumers are most concerned about for food safety are fresh meat (66%) and processed meat (51%). Other plant-based dairy (meaning everything except non-dairy milk) was on par with processed meat, at 51%. That was followed by meat alternatives (49%)—outpacing products such as fresh milk (43%) and frozen chicken (43%).

The reason food safety is on consumers’ radar is likely a combination of unfamiliarity with plant-based meats and product recalls, said Emma Cahill, who leads Kerry’s strategic marketing, food protection & preservation.

“They’re not as used to growing up with [plant-based meat]. It’s probably new, and they're not sure how to prepare it. They don’t have that reflex or that experience of the sniff test to know if it’s okay to eat,” said Cahill.

Combined with the unfamiliarity, food recalls have been making headlines around the world and opinion pieces have been written about food-safety concerns in the plant-based meat space, added Cahill. “And we can understand why this messaging is hitting consumers and they’re feeling concerns.”

Kerry research also looked at drivers for plant-based meat consumption and found that dietary restrictions are not a critical driver. Cahill noted that at its inception, the plant-based meat market was likely quite niche and coming from a place of dietary restriction, mostly driven by vegan and vegetarian diets. That’s no longer the case. In the U.S. 56% of plant-based consumers follow a “no restriction” diet. Just 16% are flexitarian, 13% are vegetarian, 8% are vegan, 5% are pescatarian and 2% are allergy restricted.

Globally, the number-one driver of plant-based meat consumption is sustainability. However, in North America, health and wellness is the top driver.

What does that mean for food manufacturers formulating plant-based meat? For consumers who are concerned about sustainability, Cahill said they’re going to be particularly sensitive to food waste concerns. “If a plant-based meat product expires or has a quality issue before they get to consume it, that's going to be a huge negative in that consumer’s mind,” she said.

Health and wellness consumers, meanwhile, are more likely to read ingredient declarations and nutrition statements. “Things like no additives or preservatives claims and sodium content will really impact their purchase decisions,” said Cahill.

In addition to dietary restrictions not being a huge driver, Cahill noted that Nielsen research shows 99% of plant-based meat consumers are also buying animal protein for their households.

“What does that mean when you’re formulating plant protein and worried about food safety? It means that those consumers expect to be able to treat a plant protein with the same familiarity and convenience as they do their animal protein that they're preparing for their households,” she said. “They are not the niche consumer who’s willing to give it special treatments and they can often be disappointed if it parishes quicker or is harder to prepare. Differences in the need for special handling and preparation can lead to food safety issues when a consumer just assumes that they can treat it like animal based meat.”

The full webinar can be viewed here:

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