You’re eating that Impossible Burger, that Beyond Sausage link, chewing slowly and musing, “I wonder how many cows have been saved so far because of plant-based meat.” The answer, in all likelihood, is none.
California-based Beyond Meat had the strongest stock market debut of any company last year. And yet plant-based meat substitutes still accounted for only 1 percent of all dollar sales for total retail meat, according to the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit group that promotes plant-based alternatives to meat.
And then there’s this: One in five pounds of beef sold come from Holstein or Jersey cows, which frequently are decommissioned dairy cows past their prime. Almost all of the meat from dairy cows is ground (it’s generally not marbled enough or muscled enough for steaks) and made into inexpensive hamburger for food service. So, it’s our consumption of milk and cheese that ultimately fuels the avalanche of burgers at fast-food restaurants.
Cattlefax, which does beef industry research, explains the breakdown of U.S. beef production like this. Seventy-one percent of the beef we ate from 2014 to 2018 came from beef cattle breeds — black Angus, Hereford and such — that started their lives grazing on grass in fields but spent the latter part of their lives eating corn on feedlots, often in the Midwest. Another 13 percent were dairy cow breeds, such as Holsteins and Jerseys, that ended their lives eating corn right alongside those beef cattle.
This 13 percent, often the male calves that aren’t much use for milk production, ended up as steaks and ground beef in retail stores, says Kevin Good, vice president of industry relations for Cattlefax, or in buffet-type chains such as Golden Corral or in steakhouses that do not grade their beef. These are the animals that previously would have been sold as veal until public tastes turned away from veal.
Another 7 percent came from older dairy cows that hadn’t been sent to feedlots. Only 7 percent were beef cattle that had not been finished on a feedlot (this would include grass-fed beef) and a final 2 percent were older bulls that had been used for breeding or sperm operations.
“We call them baloney bulls,” Good said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (ERS) reports that 3,224,200 dairy cows were slaughtered under federal inspection in 2019.
“Dairy cows slaughtered produced an estimated 2.0603 billion pounds out of a total 26.8 billion pounds produced under federal inspection,” says Russell Knight, an ERS beef analyst. “That suggests that dairy cows contributed 7.7 percent of the beef produced in 2019.”
Even some of the biggest meat producers have been quick to jump into the plant-based arena. Tyson, Perdue, Hormel, Smithfield and others have joined the rush to launch products. Cargill, one of the world’s largest privately held companies, announced this week that it would challenge Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods with its own plant-based burger patties and ground-meat alternative. The investment firm UBS predicts that the worldwide, plant-based meat-alternatives industry will rise to $85 billion in value by 2030 from $4.5 billion today.
And yet, according to the USDA, per capita beef consumption went from 54 pounds in 2015 to 57.7 pounds in 2019, with a projected 57.9 pounds in 2020. Reports have indicated that dairy is in trouble, with fluid milk consumption down 26 percent since 2000, according to the Dairy Farmers of America.
But despite recent high-profile bankruptcies by major milk producers Dean Foods and Borden Dairy, Americans are consuming more total dairy products. Yes, we are not chug-a-lugging a tall frothy glass as frequently, but dairy product consumption other than milk has more than offset the loss in direct milk consumption. There has been a huge increase in cheese consumption, and think of all the ready-to-drink bottled coffees, smoothies and protein drinks that contain milk.
“Since the USDA began tracking per capita dairy consumption in the 1970s, the trend has continued upward for five straight decades, increasing 22 percent since 1975,” says Andrew Jerome, director of communications for the International Dairy Foods Association.
Whole milk, which had previously seen a steep decline through 2013, has had renewed growth over the past five years, and milk with “added benefits,” such as pre- and probiotics or lactose free, has outpaced plant-based alternatives in retail growth.
Jerome says domestic cheese consumption increased by more than 25 percent in total tonnage, with per capita consumption up 16 percent. And per capita yogurt consumption is up 14 percent, with per capita butter consumption up 16 percent.
“We eat more dairy than we drink these days,” he says, “but dairy on the whole continues to grow.”