Sylvain Charlebois is a professor in food distribution and policy and the scientific director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University.
Following in the footsteps of A&W’s decision last year to introduce Beyond Meat burgers nationwide, fast-food companies have been quick to get in on the plant-based protein market. Restaurants such as Burger King, White Castle and Subway have added these options to their menus, and with Beyond Meat becoming a multibillion-dollar company in just a few years, the alternative-protein movement grows every day. But one notable name seemed to be sitting it out: McDonald’s.
In fact, McDonald’s has instead been heavily promoting the virtues of beef and animal proteins this year, upselling the authentic and natural attributes of meat. It began to seem beyond possibility that it would change tack in the near term and offer up a Beyond Meat burger.
Then, this week, amid a swirl of rumours, the industry’s biggest player announced it would enter the game with a 12-week Canada-exclusive pilot.
With its P.L.T. burger – plant, lettuce and tomato, with Beyond Meat protein – 28 restaurants in Southwestern Ontario locations such as London and Sarnia will serve as a test lab for the fast-food behemoth. Outside of the Big Vegan TS, served exclusively in Germany with Nestlé’s plant-based Incredible Burger, this will be the first time McDonald’s offers up this new generation of meatless burgers.
It’s not the first time it has tried a non-meat offering. In 2003, it released a disastrous “veggie burger” that retailed for $1.99. This time, the company’s commitment appears to be different: The product was developed specifically for McDonald’s to match more contemporary expectations.
However, its high price point – $6.49, which is close to the varying national average price of a Quarter Pounder – seems to suggest McDonald’s is reluctant to add a plant-based product to its menu. The fact the protein patty will be cooked on the same grills as beef burgers, chicken and eggs will also be an issue for vegans and vegetarians.
But that’s not the market McDonald’s is targeting. The market data are too compelling to ignore: For protein-focused outlets, McDonald’s is effectively protein-hedging with its menu, providing choice to consumers because it makes business sense.
With this pilot, McDonald’s is recognizing that a larger assortment of protein products on its menu will increase the likelihood of purchases. A 2018 Dalhousie survey suggests that 6.4 million Canadians are already limiting the amount of meat they eat, and more than half the respondents were willing to reduce their meat consumption. That number will only increase. Even if the metrics used to assess Beyond Meat’s true environmental impact remain questionable, a greater number of consumers have very real climate-change concerns and see our dependence on animal production as problematic. These facts alone are enough to warrant a pilot product.
The decision will not come without some criticism. Just ask A&W – the true ambassador for Beyond Meat and plant-based burgers in Canada. It became a target of anger from the beef industry, which felt betrayed, and for more than a year A&W became public enemy No. 1 in beef country. The chain has gone out of its way to make amends, including funding beef research projects, selling bison burgers and partnering with professional football teams.
But now McDonald’s, which has supported and embraced Canadian agriculture for decades, may be seen by the industry as another company switching over to the dark side. That could be a problem, given that McDonald’s still needs to maintain a balanced portfolio of protein sources. It cannot leave beef behind.
What it seems to understand with this rollout is how the P.L.T. should be different. Being distinctive in this increasingly crowded market will drive customer preference. McDonald’s knows that serving a meaty, high-quality Big Mac will be as critical to its core business as serving a tasty P.L.T.
If A&W is seen as a disrupter in food service, McDonald’s could become the exclamation mark in an era of protein plurality. We will all gain from this shift – even those in the beef industry, who will be forced to reposition their product to appeal to a more urbane and complex consumer.
It was only a matter of time before McDonald’s joined the plant-based dance. But it will also be an enormous test for a supply machine that is simply nowhere near ready for a network as massive as theirs. To align with McDonald’s market pull, expanding production capacity is vital and will require some time.
But that’s the thing about being the Big Mac on the market – your entry changes the game.
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