New York (AFP)

Vegetarian alternatives to burgers and sausages, put back in fashion by start-ups like Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger, enjoy a certain craze that the meat giants also want to enjoy.

JBS, the world's largest producer, has been marketing a soybean burger since this summer, including beetroot, garlic and onions, similar to a rare ground beef.

In the United States, the largest meat producer Tyson Foods launched in June a new line of herbal products or mixing meats and vegetables. Its competitors Hormel Foods, Perdue Farms or Smithfield, have taken similar initiatives.

"Our food culture is changing rapidly," says AFP Bryan Kreske, brand manager at Hormel Foods.

"People are showing more and more curiosity and motivation to try alternative protein sources that are appetizing," he says.

Be it a trendy background or an ephemeral fashion, the agri-food giants would not want to miss out on this opportunity. They do not target the 5% of vegetarians but the 95% who are not.

It remains difficult for them to play the card of the respect of the environment or the protection of the animals to promote their new products, as the defenders of the alternatives to the meat often do by pointing for example the carbon footprint of the cattle farming.

So the argument of health is often brandished.

Our customers "do not want to reduce their consumption of meat so much as to increase the consumption of vegetables in their food", assures Eric Christianson, Marketing Manager at Perdue.

Best known for its chicken, the company launched in September nuggets mixing poultry, cabbage and peas. Perfect, Perdue argument, for parents wishing to eat vegetables for their children.

The group is betting big on this new product since it intends to devote in 2020 half of its marketing budget. He will work hard in January, "when consumers want to eat healthier," says Christianson.

- Lifestyle -

Soy burgers have been around for decades.

But Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger have been working for the last ten years to create products that are closer to the taste, texture and flavor of real meat, thanks to ingredients such as beetroot.

These start-ups have suddenly gained notoriety this year with their arrival in fast-food restaurants, such as Burger King's Impossible Burger, and with the explosive entry of Beyond Meat on Wall Street.

The meat giants quickly jumped on the trend.

At Hormel, the Happy Little Plants brand "has grown in just under 13 weeks from an idea based on the concept of a curious consumer + to a range of commercially viable products," says Bryan Kreske.

No question of abandoning their main activity, meat.

The boss of Impossible Burger regularly claims that his goal is to completely replace meat in the food system by 2035. The challenge is daunting.

In the dairy department, for example, herbal drinks such as soya or almonds currently account for 13% of sales, according to the most optimistic estimates.

"For dairy products, there are real health problems with lactose intolerance or allergies," says Eric Christianson de Perdue. For meat, "people are not allergic to it, it is rather a lifestyle choice".

If the segment of alternatives to meat can, in his opinion, become "significant", he will probably not be able to reach the same proportion in the medium term.

Still, the meat giants "do not want to lose market share," says Robert Martin, who specializes in food policies at the Center for a Sustainable Future at Johns Hopkins University.

If the protein market is concentrated in the hands of a few giants, "it could limit innovation and competition," he notes as well.

And any initiative promoting herbal alternatives is a "positive step forward," he says. Especially since these big companies have the financial means and the expertise "to reach economies of scale which could allow to seriously lower the prices".

© 2019 AFP