Think it’s just another vegan fast-food option? Think again. McDonald’s just changed everything.
Vegan meat has come a long way. Not all that long ago, if you wanted a vegan McDonald’s burger (or any fast food burger, for that matter), you could order the bun, sans burger. It helped if you had a strong imagination, too. There are worse things, certainly, than yellow mustard, ketchup, and pickles on a soggy sesame seed bun scented with fryer and griddle grease. But those days are for the history books now. The highly anticipated McPlant Burger has arrived in Sweden and Denmark.
McDonald’s likes to test vegan options in Scandinavia. It launched its McVegan in Sweden and Finland in 2017. The McVegan preceded Impossible Foods’ rise to fast-food mainstay at McDonald’s’ chief competitor. The Impossible Whopper launched at Burger King in 2019. But for McDonald’s, the McPlant brings more significance than its predecessor. And it’s going to give the competitor a run for its money.
McDonald’s is launching the McPlant as vegan burgers are now the norm on most restaurant menus. From Burger King to White Castle, you can find vegan patties made any number of ways. Even vegan chicken has seen unprecedented success with KFC embracing plant-based.
The McPlant Burger
McDonald’s announced the development of the McPlant Burger last November. It was co-developed with California-based vegan meat giant, Beyond Meat. McDonald’s and Beyond Meat collaborated on the PLT for the Canadian McDonald’s locations. That burger didn’t succeed. But the odds look to favor the McPlant’s success.
Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have been leap-frogging through the fast-food giants for the last few years at unprecedented paces. Impossible has sliders at White Castle; Beyond Meat has Carl’s Jr. Impossible is in Umami Burger; Beyond at A&W. But it’s the top two chains that matter above all the rest. The Impossible Whopper was an instant hit at Burger King.
What separates McDonald’s from the pile though is two-fold. Firstly, it’s the King, even when sales (or rival’s names) say otherwise. There’s no other fast-food chain more synonymous with fast-food than McDonald’s. This is part of the reason why it took so long to develop the McPlant burger in the first place. It’s not just about creating a product that meets the restaurant’s standards. It’s most importantly a supply issue. McDonald’s sells more than six million burgers every single day.
The second part of this is what McDonald’s intends to do with the McPlant name. It’s its own franchise, and that means McPlant Nuggets, McPlant Rib, McPlant Shakes. The list will go on. No other fast-food chain has dived in this deep to the plant kingdom. This is that moment historians will dub the “beginning of the end of meat.”
Vegan Meat Industry
Sales of vegan meat have proved promising for years now. The trajectory of a product like the Tofurky holiday roast is perhaps the most well-known case study. You’ve got a gimmicky product designed for vegans to enjoy one day a year. It is at once both the savior and a major humiliation factor for vegans everywhere.
For decades, millions of card-carrying vegans have tried to dodge the Thanksgiving table jabs from the over-zealous meat-eaters as they try to enjoy the meaty vegan feast — a feat in its own right. Despite the cognitive dissonance that comes with wanting to eat but also run from Tofurky, the brand now sells millions of roasts every Thanksgiving. The table jabs still happen, but something else happened, too. Naysayers started to try — and enjoy — the vegan options. The brand has gone on to include deli slices, sausages, even a ham roast, as well as a whole range of frozen items. Holiday tables now often go meatless with Tofurky and the numerous lookalikes that have followed its lead.
Meat distributors have begun to take notice of the trend, too. You need only look at what’s happened in the dairy category to see the future for meat. Just last week the USDA released new data on milk sales. Dairy continues to tank as consumers keep piling almond and oat milk into their carts. Every major ice cream manufacturer now proffers vegan options. Vegan milk, butter, cheese, and yogurt, are found in every major supermarket across the country.
Meat may still be a few years behind dairy. But it’s only being buoyed by the vegan milk industry’s success, and it’s pushing off into new territories like vegan butcher counters at a rapid pace.
The Protein Aisle
The meat industry knows what’s ahead. They’re adopting new language like “protein aisle” instead of the “meat aisle.” Beyond Meat helped normalize this.
“When you think of meat in terms of its composition, it’s five things–amino acids, lipids, trace minerals, vitamins and water. None of that is exclusive to animals. Animals spend massive amounts of energy-consuming plants to make protein. We start directly with the plant material [pea protein] and build from that,” Beyond Meat founder Ethan Brown told Time Magazine in 2019.
This has been his calling card. He’s a hard guy to disagree with. On the surface, Brown looks every bit a meat-eater. Six-foot-five with a quarterback’s build, Brown was a high-school and college athlete. He’s not one to shy away from protein.
So when he debuted the now ubiquitous Beyond Burger at Whole Foods Market in Boulder, Colo., in 2016, there was only one caveat: it had to be merchandised in the meat aisle. Whole Foods, always the risk-taker, leaped at the opportunity.
Supermarkets have since disassembled many of those “vegan sections” at the far end of stores, past the cottage cheese, and integrated vegan items throughout the aisles. It’s now standard practice less than five years after that first display case of vegan burgers in the meat section.
The Future of Meat
Now, Beyond Meat works with major European meat distributors to wholesale its products abroad. Meat giant Tyson launched a range of plant-based and mixed protein products. Breakfast sausage giant Bob Evans has a vegan sausage now, too. For such an underdog, vegan meat is already everywhere.
Now, McDonald’s is giving meatless meat yet another go after several failed attempts. It’s doing it because it knows what’s coming. The vegan meat industry should hit $12 billion by 2025, still a pea in the sea of the trillion-dollar meat industry. But there’s no denying consumers are eager for cleaner protein, even the cell-based slaughter-free stuff.
The coronavirus pandemic has seen vegan food sales skyrocket. It’s not that people just decided to go vegan during lockdown. Most of them still eat meat. But what did change was the number of people all of a sudden looking to apps like Postmates and GrubHub for a bit of relief from being quarantined and the doldrum of cooking every night.
And with access to a whole new world of menus at their fingertips, adventurous eating filled the adventure gap for many stuck indoors. Finally trying that vegan burger on your couch while watching The Office reruns was the quarantine equivalent to ziplining. Add a side of cauliflower buffalo wings and you were practically skydiving.
This transition is also encouraged by some of the most revered public health and science organizations in the world. 2015 saw processed meat get slapped with a cancer warning label by the World Health Organization. Climate experts continue to warn that meat-eating is beyond detrimental to our current climate crises. Sir David Attenborough has spoken broadly about this issue as one of our last, best hopes to save the planet.
Last November, a study found we cannot hit Paris Agreement targets unless we shift away from our current consumption habits. That’s even if we stop all other emissions-producing activity. It’s a stark, undeniable warning. Today, the United Nations endorsed a Chatham House report that says global biodiversity loss is imminent if we don’t shift away from meat. The reasons keep coming, like fry orders at a McDonald’s drive-thru.
Of course, covid lockdown adventure eating aside, the pandemic itself is linked to eating animals. And zoonotic diseases like this are among the leading threats to public safety. Experts warn that more severe pandemics than coronavirus could be ahead if we don’t put some plants on our plates instead of meat.
The meat industry is all too aware of the risks. Some of these were highlighted by the rapid spread of covid infections in the close quarters of slaughter and processing lines. But there have been issues that long preceded the virus, including the rampant overuse of antibiotics.
For the meat industry, though, this all amounts to what you might call an existential crisis. Without meat, what is a meat industry?
But for those that orbit just slightly outside of that giant black hole, like McDonald’s, these problems become opportunities a whole lot faster. McDonald’s knows this. It has been trying to figure it out for years, first in shifting from cage-free eggs, sourcing fair-trade coffee, and now, helping the world break, or at least, get real about its meat addiction. But, like its burgers that can sit under glass for years and not decay, the truth has been hard to digest for McDonald’s. It has tried. And it has failed. Now it’s trying one more time. This might just work.
What makes now so different, so notable from all the other attempts, is that McDonald’s is doing what no other fast-food chain has yet to attempt. It’s leveraging the McPlant name in a way that will allow for the fast-food chain’s menu to slowly, but surely, lose the meat altogether. Pull out your crystal ball if you need some reassurance. But that is what the future holds. And in that way, the McPlant Burger is also temporary. At least in name, anyway. It is a necessary naming convention for McDonald’s as it transitions its customers and its suppliers from lovin’ it animal style, to lovin’ it McPlant style instead.