The plant-based food market grew 29% in the United States from 2017 to 2019, according to data compiled by SPINSscan and the Good Food Institute. Sales of plant-based foods were up around $5 billion in 2019 and pandemic-buying only increased consumers’ interest in alternative proteins.

Food retailers, consumer packaged goods companies (CPG), and large meat companies have taken notice.

Investment is pouring into scaling up plant-based food production for many major food manufacturers. Companies are increasing production facility capacity for meatless proteins, partnering with innovators to meet the growing demand for plant-based meat alternatives, and experimenting with existing product lines.

Mississauga, Ontario-based Maple Leaf Foods was one of the first major meat companies to fully embrace plant-based meats. In 2017, the company acquired Lightlife Foods – one of the leading tempeh brands in North America. The following year, Maple Leaf added Field Roast Grain Meat Co. and consolidated the two brands into Greenleaf Foods.

“Our plant-based business is built on more than burgers,” said Janet Riley, vice president of communications and public affairs at Maple Leaf Foods. “Plant-based protein is a natural extension to Maple Leaf’s portfolio that aligns well with our vision to lead in sustainable protein.”

In 2019, Maple Leaf announced plans to expand its plant-based food footprint with the construction of a new production facility in Shelbyville, Ind., but pandemic-induced disruptions put that project on hold.

“We’re taking our time figuring out what that Shelbyville plant is going to look like. And in the meantime, we found capacity solutions for one of the fastest-growing parts of our business, the tempeh category,” said Geert Verellen, chief financial officer for Maple Leaf Foods, in a February 2021 earnings call.

That “capacity solution” came in the form of the acquisition of a 118,000-square-foot facility in Indianapolis that will be dedicated to plant-based meat production. The production facility is expected to produce nearly 4.5 million kilograms of tempeh once it is operational in the first half of 2022 and production could double once a planned expansion is completed.

“Building off of Maple Leaf’s experience, scope, manufacturing, and our real food approach we have a vision to build a $3 billion business in this projected $25 billion category by 2029,” Riley said.

Innovative partnerships

Maple Leaf is not the only processor investing more resources into plant-based food. JBS SA subsidiary Planterra released the OZO brand of plant-based meat products in early 2020. The products are a mix of rice and pea proteins that are fermented with shiitake mushrooms.

Food ingredient company MycoTechnology is behind the fermentation innovation in OZO foods. The company specializes in using mushroom mycelium – the root systems of fungi – to make plant-based meat products healthier.

“We fermented shiitake mushroom mycelium to improve the nutritional profile and to improve the digestibility of the protein so that you get the right juiciness that you’re looking for,” said Josh Hahn, senior director of marketing at Aurora, Colo.-based MycoTechnology. “The mushroom fermentation process also strips out a lot of the negative flavor profile that you get from pea or rice.”

In the beginning, MycoTechnology started as a way to reduce sugar in foods. Fermenting mycelium can help alleviate bitterness in processed foods and thus remove the need to add sugar to mask unpleasant flavors. The potential of MycoTechnology’s ingredient business could help create a more efficient food system that addresses hunger and global food insecurity.

“The food industry – especially the big companies – have built this massive cargo ship and, when things happen in the market, it’s very hard to turn that ship in a different direction,” he said. “What we tried to do is to help integrate into their company [JBS] to be able to help them pivot quicker, and come up with solutions faster, so that they can address things at a more rapid pace.”

MycoTechnology hopes to be a long-term partner with companies like JBS in making plant-based foods not only more flavorful and indistinguishable from conventional meat, but also more nutritious, Hahn said.

Embracing alternatives

Last year saw a huge influx of major food companies expanding their portfolios into the alternative protein segment. Some companies created new product lines while others leveraged legacy brands with a plant-based spin.

Tyson Foods announced it was expanding the Raised & Rooted brand it started in 2019 into Europe, while also releasing a new plant-based patty egg croissant under its Jimmy Dean brand.

“Our investments in plant-based protein are continuing to show velocities and results that we would expect, so we’ll continue to be investing in that area,” said Dean Banks, president and chief executive officer of Tyson Foods, on the earnings call in January.

Kroger began 2020 by introducing the Emerge brand of plant-based meats to the retailer’s Simple Truth collection.

Hormel Foods introduced its Happy Little Plants plant-based meats brand in 2019 and then announced a partnership with Papa Murphy’s Pizza last year. Select locations of the pizza franchise in Texas, Minnesota, North Dakota and Nevada offered plant-based pepperoni as a topping option.

Food giant Cargill invested $75 million in pea protein producer Puris as well as key investments in cell-cultured meat companies Memphis Meats and Israel-based Aleph Farms. Cargill also expanded its pea protein business into Europe in December and launched its own plant-based ground meat and patty line of products in April.

“Producing plant-based products across our global supply chain is the logical next step to expanding our ability to meet consumer needs and bring new value to this category,” said Elizabeth Gutschenritter, managing director of Cargill’s alternative protein team, in a recent press release.

Hormel Foods introduced its Happy Little Plants brand in 2019 and announced a partnership with Papa Murphy’s Pizza in 2020.

Scaling up

Quorn, a legacy plant-based protein brand, made news in late 2018 that it was leveling up its own production with an expansion of its Billingham, England, facility. It claimed it was making the “world’s biggest” meat alternative production facility that would double the capacity of its fermented mycoprotein.

English alternative protein company, Plant & Bean, one-upped Quorn when it announced this past December that it was building Europe’s largest production facility on a sprawling 65-acre site.

Recently, Meatless Farm – another United Kingdom-based plant protein company – announced the completion of its first manufacturing plant in North America in Calgary, Canada. Meatless Farm will also be expanding into the Netherlands as well.

Large meat and non-meat food companies are rushing to build out the infrastructure necessary to meet the rapidly expanding plant-based meat segment as consumer interest continues to increase.