In recent years there has been a great deal of expansion and innovation in the meat alternatives sector, even with animal protein manufacturers entering the space. With that said, the market’s potential is still being determined, according to The NPD Group, Port Washington, NY.

“Plant-based dairy and meat alternatives may not appeal to everyone, but today's consumers are taking a personal approach in their pursuit of a healthy lifestyle and plant based alternatives are among the many choices at their disposal,” says David Portalatin, NPD’s vice president and industry analyst for food. “Expanding consumer choice and empowering them to craft their own path may provide growth opportunities for manufacturers and retailers in this space.”

Only one percent of the population claims to be vegan or vegetarian and 8 percent say they are flexible vegetarians, or about 27 million actually claim to follow a plant-based diet such as vegan, vegetarian or flexible vegetarian. The 27 million consumers claiming to follow a plant-based diet aren’t necessarily consuming plant-based dairy and meat alternatives since the number who actually consume plant-based dairy or meat alternatives is approximately 25 million. Annual eatings per capita of plant-based meat alternatives has declined from five in 2013 to three, or 972 million eatings in 2016.

Meat and poultry processors must keep their products relevant to stay competitive and top-of-mind with indecisive protein-shopping consumers. Here are some tips:

• The NPD Group says that dinner is the most likely meal to include fresh meat, fish or poultry. Yet, consumers are often crunched for time when it comes to making dinner after a long day away from home. Offering marinated or dry rubbed cuts in easy-to-cook or grill forms makes it easier.

• Market a product with an attractive Nutrition Facts and ingredient statement, but do it quietly. If you lower the sodium content, don’t necessarily flag “reduction” but do flag “nutrients per serving” on front display panels. This makes it easier to compare and choose the “better-for-you” protein.

• Tell a story. Consumers can relate to the fresh-from-the-farm message. That’s what you get with fresh, uncooked meat and poultry. Analogs are anything but “minimally processed.” Talk about the farm, the care of the animals and the simplicity of the protein.