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From 'The Indicator': Holy Cow, It's Fake Meat!


As environmentally conscious consumers try to reduce their carbon footprint, some are turning to fake meat as an alternative to methane-producing animals. But unlike, say, fake designer handbags or fake watches, fake meat costs way more than the real thing. Sally Herships and Darian Woods at The Indicator explore how the sausage is made - the fake sausage - to figure out why.

SALLY HERSHIPS, BYLINE: At my local Target here in Brooklyn, two Impossible Burger patties are about $11 a pound. That is about twice as much as real beef. Now, Darian, I know this is supposed to be a story about beef prices. But to understand why fake beef is so much more expensive, we are going to start with a chicken in Singapore.


HERSHIPS: Meet Andre Menezes. One day, he was in Singapore, shopping at his grocery store for chicken.

ANDRE MENEZES: That day specifically, there was this freezer holding huge blocks of ice.

WOODS: At the time, Andre worked for one of the largest poultry exporters in the world. So it wasn't that unusual that Andre had chicken on his mind. And he did a little price comparison.

MENEZES: A similar weight block of ice was the same price as my chicken.

HERSHIPS: Andre knew that the chicken staring up at him from the freezer had been shipped to Singapore all the way from Brazil. And he thought, how could a bag of ice be the same price as this chicken?

WOODS: You should know that Andre is an engineer, so he is really interested in efficiency. Raising chickens or any kind of livestock for meat can be really, really inefficient.

HERSHIPS: When you grow a chicken or a cow, there's all this other stuff that consumers don't want to buy for meat. We don't want to eat feathers or bones or beaks. So last year, Andre left, and he co-founded his own company, TiNDLE - one that takes chicken out of the equation. Instead of feeding corn and soybeans to chickens and then selling those chickens to people, he figured he'd just skip the chicken step.

WOODS: Andre says there are a few main reasons that fake meat can be so much more expensive than the real thing. One of them is marketing.

MENEZES: No one needs to convince anyone to eat meat and that meat is good because, you know, we were born and raised - our parents are telling us that meat is good all the way.

WOODS: But plant-based meat is this whole new category, and it can be really hard to get consumers to try something new. And on top of that, veggie burgers had a bad reputation for years - like, kind of crunchy and brown, like old socks - which explains another big expense for new plant-based companies - research and development, like making protein from peas taste and look and smell like a burger.

MENEZES: So we mentioned Impossible few times. It bleeds, right? It tastes like beef. It smells like beef. It cooks like beef.

WOODS: Bloomberg says the market for plant-based meat is now exploding, and it could grow as large as $75 billion over the next decade. And if you're thinking maybe lack of competition is keeping prices high, no. There's a lengthy shopping list of huge corporations - Nestle, Tyson, Perdue, Smithfield, Hormel - all getting into the fake game. Andre says the big reason for the price difference is economies of scale.

MENEZES: Plant-based meats today in general - they only represent about 1.5% of the overall meat market. And that's a huge disadvantage.

HERSHIPS: Companies are scaling up. And he says as climate change makes water more scarce and we need more sources of food, he says it's going to drive the price of meat even higher. So a burger or a chicken nugget with the chicken or the cow taken out of the equation will just become that much cheaper.

Sally Herships.

WOODS: Darian Woods, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Darian Woods is a reporter and producer for The Indicator from Planet Money. He blends economics, journalism, and an ear for audio to tell stories that explain the global economy. He's reported on the time the world got together and solved a climate crisis, vaccine intellectual property explained through cake baking, and how Kit Kat bars reveal hidden economic forces.
Sally Herships