(Photo: Adobe Stock)
(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Has meat met its match?

You can still buy a greasy burger at the ballgame, but lab-germinated alternatives are gaining ground.

During the 2019 Phillies season, you could buy a cheesesteak made from plants, not meat, at the ballpark. Anyone who grew up in Philadelphia, as I did, will reflect on this with some amazement.

 The Philly cheesesteak on a nine-inch roll has long reigned as a regional monarch in the belly-buster realm of the good old drippy, greasy, meat-stuffed American sandwich, right up there with Chicago’s famed, soggy Italian beef concoction. If you can now buy a cheesesteak at a baseball game in Philly that was made out of plants and designed in a lab, it’s safe to say that the culinary world is changing.

Faux-meat products are making inroads into the American fast-food and casual-restaurant world. The trend is being driven by marketing that emphasizes the benefit of lab-produced “meat” over the environmental costs of cattle ranching and by the growing number of consumers who prefer vegetarian options or avoid meat altogether. In a survey by the Global Business Travel Association, two-thirds of business travelers say they want “healthier” menu options on the road.

Inflight caterers and corporate flight attendants who manage menu purchases are responding by offering more vegetarian, organic, and vegan options as plant-based meat products are becoming far more widely available. The food and facilities services giant Aramark says that with more consumers “looking for plant-based meat options,” it has partnered with Beyond Meat, a major producer, to expand availability of such products in stadiums, hotels, convention centers, and other facilities.

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If you’re flying to Miami in February for the Super Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium, you’ll find an expanded selection of vegetarian foods there. During last year’s Super Bowl, the fast-food restaurant Carl’s Jr. even ran a TV ad promoting its plant-based Beyond Burger.

The market is not just herbivores. The makers of meatless “meat” are “not trying to go after a niche market of vegetarians and vegans,” says Eric Bohl, director of public affairs for the Missouri Farm Bureau. “They’re looking at the broader public and doing a pretty good job of creating products that taste fairly similar [to meat].”

Companies that produce these products are operating on heaps of venture capital.  They say their alternatives are lower in cholesterol and saturated fats than meat, but meat producers argue that plant-based substitutes contain more sodium and at least as many calories as the real thing and don’t taste as good. They also aren’t shy about noting that the Impossible Burger—the most popular of the meat-substitute options now being offered by fast-food outlets like Burger King—comes from a laboratory, not a farm.

Such pushback hasn’t stopped people from trying—and liking—the new options. Initial customer reaction is said to have been good to the plant-based Philly cheesesteak, which was introduced by Grammy-winning musician Questlove, a Philadelphia native, in partnership with Impossible Foods, the company behind the aforementioned Impossible Burger. The Questlove Cheesesteak is now being rolled out nationwide in other sports and entertainment venues.

Starting this NFL season, meanwhile, a Lightlife Foods plant-based burger is being sold at two concession stands during Bears games at Soldier Field in Chicago—a mere five miles from the fabled old Union Stock Yard meatpacking district that once processed more meat than any place else in the world.

Some perspective is in order: per-capita consumption of real meat and poultry in America is at an all-time high, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. True, the market research firm NPD Group reports that in the 12-month period through May 2019, 228 million plant-based burgers were sold at fast-food restaurants in the U.S. But that number sounds less impressive when you learn that these restaurants sold 6.4 billion traditional beef burgers during the same time.

So carnivores continue to rule. You can still wolf down a football-sized bacon-wrapped Pigskin Potato at Green Bay Packers games, and the giant Shula Burger remains available at Hard Rock Stadium.

But if it’s meat you want, it might be time to start reading menus more carefully to be sure you’re getting what you think you’re getting. Bohl, the Missouri Farm Bureau spokesman, did a taste test comparing the Burger King all-beef Whopper with its plant-based Impossible Burger. His verdict: “If I didn’t know what I was eating, I would have no idea that it was not beef.”