TORONTO – Add Maple Leaf Foods Inc. to the list of companies seeking to capitalize on consumer interest in plant-based meat alternatives. The market is becoming crowded as large companies like Nestle S.A., Tyson Foods Inc. and Conagra Brands Inc., vie for market share with upstarts Beyond Meat Inc., Impossible Foods and others.

Maple Leaf’s commitment to the meat alternative market began in earnest two years ago when it acquired Field Roast Grain Meat Co. for $120 million and Lightlife Foods for $140 million. Since then Maple Leaf Foods has introduced several products, including the Lightlife Plant-Based Burger, and committed to building a $310 million plant-based protein manufacturing facility in Shelbyville, Indiana. The new plant will complement two other plant-based processing facilities in Turner Falls Massachusetts, and Seattle, which management said are expected to reach capacity in 2020.

Maple Leaf Foods’ aggressive moves reflect its optimism about the growth potential of meat alternatives. During a presentation on Aug. 1 to discuss the company’s second-quarter financial results, Michael H. McCain, president and CEO, said he sees plant-based protein reaching 10 percent to 15 percent of the meat protein market by 2029. Today, meat alternatives make up 1 percent of the market.

“This represents a North American market opportunity of C$25 billion for plant-based protein and an even greater opportunity globally,” McCain said during a conference call with financial analysts.

Maple Leaf Foods breaks the meat alternative market into three categories — refrigerated retail, frozen retail and food service. The company competes in the refrigerated retail market, which it sees as currently the largest meat alternative segment.

“While burgers obviously have received significant attention recently, fact is that this is going to be a very broad category,” McCain said. “And we have today one of the broadest portfolios in the plant-based meat alternative space that’s on the market as of this moment. In addition to pea-based products, our portfolio includes grain- and soy-based products, offering consumers a greater breadth and depth of options than anyone else.”

Recent meat alternative innovation from the company includes Lightlife raw grounds, which has the same taste and “juicy” experience as conventional ground beef, according to the company.

“Many category experts in the retail market actually feel that the grounds business will be larger than the burger business at the end of the day,” McCain said.

Maple Leaf also released several pea-based sausages during the most recent quarter, including a beer bratwurst in partnership with Elysian Brewing, Seattle.

“Innovation is the key to growth in this category,” McCain said. “We’re dedicating significant resources to it. We’re working on exciting new products that are going to further expand our portfolio, not just in the existing categories, but we also intend to extend into new categories, not the least of which will be plant-based chicken alternatives and blended products under the Maple Leaf portfolio.

“Consumers are demanding new products and new technology additions to the marketplace at a pace that I’ve never witnessed before in my time in this industry. It’s super exciting, but we have to keep pace with that. Winning with product is central to our competitive strategy.”

The size of the prize Maple Leaf sees in meat alternatives is substantial. Current company sales in the category are C$204 million ($155 million), with 95 percent in retail. The company is forecasting sales of C$280 million ($212 million) in 2020 and has set a target of greater than C$3 billion ($2.27 billion) in meat alternative sales in 10 years. In addition to the $310 million investment in the Shelbyville plant, Maple Leaf Foods plans to spend approximately C$96 million on plant protein supply chain improvements.

“As the market shifted to hyper-growth and with our intent to win in this race, we shifted our focus to revenue growth and terminal value,” McCain said. “And to us, that means we have to invest in that growth aggressively in key areas.”

During the presentation McCain said “winning share of voice” is important to winning market share. But one analyst on the call noted much of the recent news around meat alternatives focused on companies like Beyond Meat Inc. and Impossible Foods.

“The new entrants (certainly) need to be applauded for the ability to generate rapid buzz,” McCain said. “We will have to play some catch up ball in that race, which starts with dialing up to our financial commitment to winning share of voice. Winning the buzz in the last six months does not mean winning the buzz or share of voice or the market share over the next 10 years.”