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Who are you calling chicken? Tyson Foods is getting into the business of plant-based meat.

Tyson Foods’ plant-based nuggets, to be sold under the Raised & Rooted brand name. (Kevin Smith/Tyson Foods/AP)

Tyson Foods entered the crowded fray of alt-meat Thursday, with the country’s largest meat producer announcing it will produce plant-based meat products under the Raised & Rooted brand. They intend to release nuggets to retailers this summer, with a blended burger product to follow in the fall.

The move shows traditional meat companies are eager to get in on plant-based alternatives heralded as the next big thing. The entry of these heavy hitters presents a challenge to start-ups and other fledgling companies that have centered their whole business on plant-based meat.

After the announcement, shares of Beyond Meat plummeted about 4 percent in premarket trading. Until recently, Tyson held a 6.52 percent share in the El Segundo, Calif.-based Beyond Meat, but Tyson sold its stake in April in anticipation of launching its own alternative-meat company.

As has been widely publicized, Beyond Meat had the strongest initial public offering of the year, with stocks soaring 468 percent and a market value of about $8.3 billion, but Thursday’s fall in share prices may indicate that the market perceives Tyson as a challenge to the younger, smaller company.

Tyson is not the only big player entering this heated market. Nestlé announced this month that it will launch a pea-protein-based burger this fall in the United States under the brand Sweet Earth. (Beyond Meat uses pea protein and canola oil, while major competitor Impossible Foods uses a soy-based protein and coconut oil.) Other meat giants such as Cargill have made investments in cell-cultured-meat companies such as Memphis Meats, which is said to be close to launching products.

While many of these companies are a rebuke to traditional animal agriculture, it makes sense that key players in traditional ag are angling for a slice of this new pie.

It’s a big pie.

This country dispatches 50 billion hamburgers annually, three every week for each American. But there is mounting evidence that a diet high in processed and red meat may be harmful.

A Lancet study of global diet and health this spring made waves when it called out processed and red meat as “unhealthy items,” along with sugary beverages and sodium. And a study in the peer-reviewed British Medical Journal on the topic released Thursday said red meat was associated with increased risk of Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer, including colorectal. Still other recent studies indicate that red meat is no worse than white meat in terms of cholesterol.

In light of this new research, many “flexitarians” and even die-hard carnivores are considering swapping in a plant-based burger occasionally.

Questions remain about whether plant-based burgers such as those from Beyond Meat or Impossible are healthier than animal-based burgers. While they have zero cholesterol, they are calorically similar, similar in saturated fat and frequently slightly higher in sodium. And in a recent study by the Detox Project, many commercial organic pea proteins tested positive for high levels of glyphosate, an herbicide that has been linked to cancer.

The research firm Euromonitor International expects that the market for meat alternatives will hit $22.9 billion globally by 2023. By comparison, traditional animal agriculture has a global worth of $1.4 trillion. What goliaths such as Tyson and Nestlé can bring to the table are deep pockets for research and development.

Miles from the veggie burgers of yore, these new alt-meats chew, sizzle and even bleed like traditionally farmed meat. Rather than aiming at a target audience of vegans and vegetarians, many of the companies marketing these new products see their customers as carnivores concerned about the sustainability of traditional animal agriculture.

Impossible and Beyond Meat recently reformulated their product to be “meatier,” and cell-cultured-meat companies plan to enter the arena with products that are nutritionally identical to traditionally raised meats. At least initially, alt-meat companies are aiming for verisimilitude to attract meat-eating consumers. Moving forward, according to Kristopher Gasteratos, founder of the Cellular Agriculture Society, nutrient density and nutritional improvements are a matter of formulation.