Plant-Based Offerings in the Food Industry Are Sparing the Lives of Nearly a Million Animals per Year
By Maha Bazzi
Learn more about the impact plant-based is making.
One theme was prominent in the ever-changing American food industry in 2021: restaurant chains small and large, grocery stores, and consumers, continued to embrace plant-based products. Plant-based chicken products took center stage last year with the back-to-back launches of plant-based chicken by Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, which are now featured on restaurant menus and retail shelves all over the country. More than two dozen chains added Beyond Chicken Tenders to their menus, Burger King initiated a trial of Impossible Chicken Nuggets at select locations, and Panda Express launched and subsequently expanded offerings of its Beyond orange chicken dish.
The continued addition of new plant-based products on restaurant menus and grocery shelves across the country is certainly cause for celebration, but even more so if we know that this expansion is leading to animals being spared from suffering on factory farms. So, we aimed to estimate the number of animal lives impacted just by some of the largest fast-food chains offering Beyond Meat or Impossible Food products on their menus.
We know the chains selling Beyond or Impossible products, the number of stores, and how big their portions are. We also know that the typical beef cow produces around 500 pounds of meat, a pig around 130 pounds of pork, and a chicken about 2.8 pounds of meat. Using this information, we can estimate the number of cows, pigs, and chickens spared as a result of consumers switching from beef burgers, pork sausages, and chicken tenders or nuggets to humane and sustainable plant-based proteins.
However, we would only be saving animals if meat-eaters are opting to buy the plant-based products in lieu of their go-to meat selection. Market research data leaves us comfortable assuming that 90% of plant-based meat purchases are made by people who are not vegan or vegetarian so would likely have otherwise bought the equivalent animal-based product.
In order to calculate the animal impact, we needed to make a few other assumptions. For example, to estimate the number of plant-based items sold at these chains, we used data from Carl’s Jr. indicating the company has consistently sold 30 Beyond burgers per day since launching the item in 2019 and applied that sales rate to all companies we assessed. We also assume that stores are open 360 days per year and that it’s not likely people are eating more food because of the new plant-based options, but that they are simply swapping out meat for beef, pork, or chicken from Impossible and Beyond.
Crunching the numbers, we estimate that in 2021 more than 211,000 pigs, 77,000 cows, and 350,000 chickens—or more than 630,000 total animals—exited the food system in the United States as a result of prominent chains including Beyond or Impossible products on their menus.
The actual numbers of animals spared, though, are likely much, much higher. Our assessment does not account for the full plant-based product market, such as those sold in grocery stores, menu items that feature other plant-based brands or those made in-house, or Beyond and Impossible products offered at other types of restaurants. In fact, in 2021 alone, Impossible Foods went from selling its products in only 150 stores to a staggering 20,000 grocery stores. Taco Bell announced its proprietary plant-based blend at select locations, Little Caesars opted for Field Roast pepperoni for its new Planteroni pizza trial at dozens of locations, and McDonald’s started a trial of its own McPlant burger.
It’s fair to say that the true impact to animals from the growing plant-based meat market was likely more than a million animals saved.
Our assessment also excludes eggs and dairy, for which consumption of plant-based versions continues to grow. So this year, we were also lucky to secure data directly from Zero Egg, a plant-based egg brand, to determine how many laying hens may be spared from food production based on just this one company’s sales. Thanks to restaurants offering their products in 2021, Zero Egg determined that more than a million total eggs were replaced in US diets equating to roughly 4,300 hens able to exit the food system. They expect these numbers to grow significantly over the next 5 years, enabling 5 million egg-laying hens to exit the system.
While the number of animals spared may sound significant, it is a small fraction of the approximately 120 million pigs, 30 million cows, 9 billion chickens, and 320 million laying hens raised or killed for food in the US every year. By consuming fewer animal-based products, we can transform our food system to one that prioritizes producing plants and raising animals with higher standards of welfare that eliminate the painful mutilations, cruel confinement, and filthy conditions common today.
And 2022 started off strong with Chipotle making its homemade plant-based chorizo available at all its locations nationwide and KFC expanding its Beyond Fried Chicken nationwide for a limited time. KFC’s announcement follows a public campaign by World Animal Protection encouraging the chain to expand the trial of its plant-based chicken offering to all its 4,000 locations.