Growing appetite for vegan dairy, meat products propels Northern California producers
Finding vegetarian and vegan food in a grocery store is no longer like a scavenger hunt. That’s good news for its producers but leaves the traditional meat and dairy industries less than thrilled.
Sales and new products are up, say industry experts, because people want alternatives to animal products for health and environmental reason and the industry is offering a greater variety of non-meat choices, with flavors and textures often mimicking animal products. And it’s getting product placement in many cases right next to animal-based products.
“I think it’s important to showcase plant-based options to an audience who may not be seeking them,” Kalie Marder, co-owner of Renegade Foods, with production facilities in Sonoma County, said. “One way to normalize vegan food is to put it in the grocery store where you will find its animal counterpart. Consumers tend to be presented with a meat-free option that still meets their expectations.”
However, grocery stores having non-dairy products in the dairy case is not the only economic issue.
Anja Raudabaugh, CEO for Western United Dairies, said any weakening of the standards around butter fat, for example, threatens to weaken the formulaic price, “or at least it has the potential to.”
“Take it to its logical conclusion. If products can fill shelf space that claim to be butter, you’re not only losing shelf space, but you’re losing value at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (which sets the price for butter),” Raudabaugh said.
The lobbying organization and think tank represents nearly two-thirds of California’s dairy farms.
The California dairy industry, which employs 286,000, has lost 2% of its market share in the past eight years.
Meanwhile, in 2020 plant-based yogurt sales grew 20%, almost seven times the rate of conventional yogurt; plant-based cheese grew 42%, almost twice the rate of conventional cheese; and plant-based eggs grew 168%, almost 10 times the rate of conventional eggs, according to the Plant Based Foods Association. The plant-based egg category grew more than 700% from 2018, 100 times the rate of conventional eggs.
“Our most recent data that covered the 2020 grocery year shows plant-based food sales were up another 27 percent. That has been the way it has been year-over-year for the last six or seven years with tremendous double digit growth,” said Michael Robbins, who handles policy for the association. “It’s outpacing all other sectors of the grocery store.”
North Bay providing alternatives
Amy’s Kitchen in Petaluma is a powerhouse in the vegetarian/vegan world, having been in business since 1988.
“We never could have predicted that one-day vegetarian and vegan would become mainstream and on track to surpass animal protein alternatives someday,” Andy Berliner, Amy’s co-founder and CEO, told the Business Journal. “Consumers are more educated about food choices and the impact diet has on their health and the health of our planet. They’re seeing the data that a plant-based diet can improve personal and planet health. Now our biggest challenge is keeping up with the demand.”
He said demand for Amy’s products “surged 100% in 2020.” Berliner attributes this to people stockpiling during the pandemic and wanting to eat healthier. Revenues in 2020 were about $600 million.
“We expect a record year in 2022 because of investments we’ve made in more production facilities — new locations in San Jose and Goshen (in Tulare County) — and people,” Berliner said.
The company has 136 products on the market, and in a normal year launches six to 12 new items.
“Amy’s is unique in that everything is made from whole, organic ingredients and cooked in real kitchens much the way you would at home with a lot of love,” Berliner said.
Innovation, like most industries, is a key to success. Ten-year old Wildbrine and WildCreamery in Santa Rosa just released an oat butter and soon will have a quinoa-based sour cream.
“We have made cultures for plant based items that are derived from the same byproducts by fermenting plants,” co-owner Chris Glab said. Products are usually found in grocery stores mixed in with similar non-plant based items.
Glab said in the United States in the 12 months ending Jan. 24, 2021, compared with the previous 12 months:
• Plant-based cream cheese grew 2.3 times faster than traditional dairy cream cheese (45.1% vs 19.7%)
• Plant-based sour cream grew 3.8 times faster than traditional dairy sour cream (53.8% vs 14.8%)
• Plant-based butter grew 6.6 times faster than traditional dairy butter (133.3% vs 20.3%).
While Renegade Foods has only had plant-based products on the market since 2020, research and design was a decade-long process. The company is headquartered in Berkeley, with production taking place in Petaluma.