Half of Americans want meat-free options after industry's crisis

[WASHINGTON] The US meat industry crisis that saw thousands of sick workers, surging prices and grocery-store shortages is leading half of Americans to consider plant-based options, new research shows.

A poll taken By Rethink Priorities in conjunction with the Humane Society of the United States at the end of May found that 52 per cent of respondents think the food industry should focus more on meat-free foods to help reduce shortages.

The survey of 998 people also found that half of respondents don't think the meat industry cares about the health of its workers, and 65 per cent don't think it cares about the treatment of animals.

"Covid is shining a light for consumers to start evaluating their own choices and whether or not they want to continue to buy meat," said Josh Balk, vice-president of farm animal protection for the Humane Society.

Plant-based proteins are already seeing a pandemic bump after coronavirus outbreaks forced closures at some of America's largest packing plants. Soy-based burger maker Impossible Foods and pea-based meat imitator Beyond Meat have spread into grocery stores across the US, and buying of meat alternatives had tripled from a year earlier in the eight weeks ended April 25, according to Nielsen data.

Faux meat had already catapulted to the zeitgeist last year, captured in the blistering initial public offering for Beyond Meat. More Americans have dubbed themselves flexitarians - people who regularly substitute other foods for meat - and vegan products have shown up on menus of nationwide chains including TGI Fridays. Even traditional giants like Tyson Foods have move toward offering alternatives.

Even then, meat demand remains strong, said Sarah Little, spokesperson for the North American Meat Institute, which represents companies that process 95 per cent of America's red meat. Despite tight supplies and purchase limits in place for popular cuts, sales volume grew 5 per cent for the week of May 24 compared with a year earlier, according to data from researcher IRI.

Still, the pandemic has highlighted longstanding issues in the country's food-supply chain that many people are seeing for the first time, Balk of the Humane Society said. That is prompting consumers to look for alternatives to industrialised meat, he said.

There have been at least 44 meatpacking worker deaths and more than 3,000 workers tested positive for Covid-19, according to estimates from United Food & Commercial Workers International Union. The slowdowns in processing also led to the largest pig culling effort the US has ever seen as hundreds of thousands of animals were backed up on farms.

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