Complex Made Simple

Opinion: Fake meat companies to profit while the real meat industry could be blamed for COVID-19

With most reports pointing to COVID-19 originating from an animal host, and previous outbreaks like the Swine flu having also been transmitted from animals, one has to wonder if this current pandemic also falls on the shoulders of the meat industry.

General consensus among epidemiologists is that the virus originated at a Wuhan wet market where animals, some exotic, are often slaughtered and sold Currently, the nature of the meat industry's day-to-day operations has led to many workers falling sick, causing the shutdown of multiple meat processing facilities and the disruption of supply chains During this same period, fake meat producers are finding increased success and visbility, as well as a boom in investment

In a surprising turn of events, it seems fake meat (officially dubbed plant-based meat) producers like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are making a killing during the pandemic as the meat industry stumbles in the wake of COVID-19. 

In fact, since most data points to the virus being zoonotic, meaning it is transmitted from animals to humans, the meat trade is all but confirmed to have inadvertently caused the pandemic we are experiencing today.

Could anti-meat activists and companies have been right all along?

Vegans, vegetarians and fake meat producers rejoice

While the search for patient zero still wages on, most official reports suspect that the novel coronavirus currently ravaging the world originated from an open wet market in Wuhan, China, where vendors sell and often slaughter live animals on site, including chickens, fish, and shellfish. With many many medical professionals indicating the virus most likely originated from an animal, like the Swine flu did, it seems vegetarians, vegans and fake meat producers will have been vindicated, fueling their stance on opposing the meat industry and its detrimental effects on the human body and the planet. 

For years, many activists have commented on how the meat industry treats its animals before they’re slaughtered. From pumping them full of anitbiotics, to holding them in extremely tight quarters, where viruses and other pathogens often thrive, to herds of animals overgrazing land and damaging it in the long-term – the criticisms are endless, and often justified. 

Livestock farms are often a source – and a breeding ground – for zoonotic viruses
When looking at the spread of diseases among livestock that eventually make the jump to human hosts, we’ve only got to look at recent outbreaks to see a correlation. Swine flu had existed for decades, but it is suspected new strains began emerging uncontrollably due to overcrowded swine farms, which eventually made the jump to humans causing the H1N1 outbreak. Remember that today, most livestock is selectively bred to produce homogenous offspring with desirable traits, such as lean meat and high body mass for maximum profitability. 

“The birds in a given farm tend to be near genetic clones of one another – having been selected over decades for desirable traits such as lean meat,” The Guardian explains, paraphrasing from evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace’s book Big Farms Make Big Flu. “If a virus gets introduced into such a flock, it can race through it without meeting any resistance in the form of genetic variants that prevent its spread. Both experimental manipulations and observations in the real world have demonstrated that this process can result in a ratcheting up of the virus’s virulence. If it then spills over into humans, we are potentially in trouble.”

Add to the mix the fact that China’s cuisine includes species that are often seen as exotic by Western or even Arab perspectives, and you can imagine the risks the meat industry deals with everyday. A recent study of COVID-19’s (officially SARS-CoV-2) genetic sequence indicates it most probably originated in bats, and that it was likely transmitted to humans through a scaled mammal called a pangolin. 

The culprit behind the novel coronavirus pandemic?

“A group of researchers from South China Agricultural University found that samples from coronavirus patients were 99% identical to samples of the virus taken from wild pangolins,” according to China’s official Xinhua news agency, and as reported by Business Insider.

So while COVID-19 might not have originated at massive livestock farms like other viral outbreaks in the past, the meat industry still had a hand in causing it.

Fake meat producers set to capitalize
While plant-based meat had already begun making inroads in the food industry last year, COVID-19 is proving to be a perfect opportunity for expansion, given that the production of these food products does not pose as much a risk to employees as does the processing of livestock into meat products. The fact that no live animals are involved makes the whole situation much more manageable. 

“Beyond Meat, one of the bigger names in food technology, saw its shares jump 49% last month,” Bloomberg reported. “Meanwhile, venture capitalists have been pouring money into smaller companies, some focused on lab-grown meat analogues as well as plant-based substitutes.”

The company’s revenue soared 141% to $97.1 million in Q1 2020 from a year ago, and outpaced analyst expectations of $88.3 million, according to a Refinitiv survey, says CNBC.

Even big names in the meat industry in the US, like Tyson, Smithfield, and Hormel Foods, have begun investing in alternative meat products, Bloomberg notes.

Vegetarian alternatives to meat have existed for quite a long time – everyone’s heard of McDonald’s McVeggie burger, for example. However, plant-based meat as it’s come to be called (also dubbed ‘plant-based protein’), has only recently begun to find success, on the backs of companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. These companies have partenered with big fast food chains like KFC, Burger King and Subway in the US and other countries to bring customers a taste of a new food product: one that tastes and looks like meat, but doesn’t carry the health and environmental baggage that usually comes with it. 

Surprisingly, it found significant success, with many fast food chains selling out of these plant-based products quite rapidly. In fact, these alternative meat offerings have even helped fast food chains like Burger King see a surge in earnings. Ultimately, the plant-based meat industry could grow form $4.6 billion in 2018 to $85 billion by 2030, financial firm UBS forecasts.

In the Middle East, adoption, and even awareness, has been much more limited. A few gourmet eateries are dabbling with it, but mainstream popularity is still far from a reality. Some fast food chains in the region, like Johnny Rockets diners in Kuwait, already offer plant-based meat options.

Disrupted supply chains – Is the GCC affected?

Today, the nature of the virus and its high transmission rate have put the meat industry at risk as more and more of its workers are getting infected, causing entire processing facilities to be shut down, sending shockwaves along supply chains. As of late last month, “at least 20 meatpackers [in the US had] already died from COVID-19, and more than 5,000 [had] been hospitalized or [were] showing symptoms,” TIME magazine reports. 

This disruption to supply chains has caused a notable drop in meat availability at supermarkets and grocers, forcing some retailers to limit the amount purchasable per customer in some countries.

Luckily, this situation doesn’t seem to have extended to the Middle East just yet. The UAE and other GCC states have reassured their citizens of high food security, and that they are equipped to handle demand for months to come. 

Additionally, and according to Gulf News, there is not much risk to meat and overall food security in the GCC because “domestic food demand is expected to decrease by 15 to 20 per cent due to the absence of foreign tourists as a result of restrictions placed to contain the pandemic.” This is caused by multiple factors, including more cautious consumer spending and a drop in tourists as the world continues its lockdown.

As this pandemic progresses, with currently no end in sight, could we see fake meat companies claim a permanent, more prominent stake in the market? It is quite possible, though it is worthy of note that even these producers have been affected by decreased consumer demand, as Beyond Meat confirmed following the release of their Q1 2020 earnings report. If anything, this sector while find more willing investors in the meantime.