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America’s Food Chains are Sparing Nearly a Million Animals per Year Thanks to Plant-based Offerings



Sparing animals a life of misery is what counts.

This past year has been anything but normal. From political unrest to a global pandemic, 2020 has proved to be a year where institutions and social norms were challenged. As we look back over the last year in food this theme continues: from Starbucks’ national rollout of the Impossible Breakfast Sandwich to Pizza Hut’s introduction of its Beyond Pan Pizza’s using Beyond Meat Sausage, 2020 was the year that America’s largest food chains embraced plant-based meats. 

Aside from all the hype and marketing, what do all these efforts mean for the numbers of animals spared from lifetimes of misery on factory farms? 

At least 26 national restaurant chains are currently serving Beyond Meat and more than 22 are serving Impossible Foods products. We know the number of stores and how big their portions are. In rare cases, we’re given sales data, but this is something we largely have to estimate for reasons of business secrecy—we reached out to Impossible and Beyond for this research but both companies decline to release this information.  

What we do know is that the typical beef cow produces around 500 pounds of meat and the typical pig around 130 pounds of pork. Using this information, we can estimate the number of cows and pigs spared as a result of consumers switching from beef burgers and pork sausages to humane and sustainable plant-based proteins. 

Until last year, the X factor had been that we don’t know who is eating these newfangled plant-based options—for example, if only vegetarians buy the Impossible Whoppers then we won’t really be saving any animals—but a slew of market research data means that we’re comfortable assuming roughly 90% of plant-based meat purchases are made by people who otherwise would have bought an equivalent animal-based protein product. 

In order to calculate the animal impact we have to make a number of other assumptions as well, for example, we take the word of business analyst, Andrew Charles, who was widely quoted last year as suggesting Burger King could sell 50 Impossible Whoppers per day, and apply that same figure to all the food chains in our model. We also assume that stores are open 360 days per year and that we have a zero-sum game—i.e. that it’s not likely people are eating more food because of the new plant-based options, they are simply swapping out meat for meat alternatives, and in particular, they are swapping beef or pork for Impossible and Beyond. 

Crunching these numbers, we estimate that in 2020 between Impossible and Beyond sales at national restaurant chains, more than 690,000 pigs and 257,000 cows—or nearly 947,000 animals total—will exit the food system every year. This is almost 700,000 animals more than we estimated in 2019. Driving this number upwards is larger chains with more outlets embracing plant-based meats, including Pizza Hut and Starbucks.  

While this number may sound a lot, it is but a fraction of the approximately 120 million pigs and 30 million cows killed for food in the U.S. every year and sold in groceries and other foodservice industries. Even Impossible Foods acknowledged that its sales account for less than a tenth of a percent of ground beef sales

So why the cause for celebration? Because each of these statistics represents an animal’s life spared avoided painful mutilations like teeth clipping, tail docking, and castration, as well as a life of spent in cruel confinement. By consuming fewer animal-based meats, we are able to create a shift to higher welfare production and improve the lives for billions of farmed animals. 

We fully expect this trend to continue, especially as even larger chains like McDonald’s throws its hat in the ring. Another trend is the next wave of plant-based meats focusing on chicken and fish. Because these are smaller animals that are processed in significantly higher numbers, this is when we’ll really see the numbers soar.

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