Vegan Supermarket Butcher Counters: A Sign of the Times

With Veganuary comes all eyes on plant-based meal options.

UK supermarket chain Sainsbury’s made headlines in 2019 when it launched a pop-up vegan butcher counter. The launch, the UK’s first vegan butcher, was such a departure from traditional supermarket fare that customers lined up for a taste. The launch was part of the World Meat-Free Week, which happens every year in June.

Sainsbury’s said it made the move after seeing a 65 percent increase in sales of vegan food year-on-year and doubling its vegan sales in the year leading up to the launch of the butcher shop.

It was a significant move for a supermarket all the way back in 2019 when the majority of vegan butchers were, not surprisingly, solely vegan. For a supermarket to take a chance on vegan meat counters, even for just three days, showed the market shift in all its meaty glory.

Now, another leading UK supermarket chain, Asda, has launched its own vegan butcher counter. But if successful, this one could pave the way in making vegan meat and deli counters the new supermarket norm.

Vegan Supermarket Butcher Counters: A Sign of the Times
Sainsbury’s Vegan BUtcher Pop-Up

Vegan Butchers

Asda kicked off Veganuary by trialining ‘Veelicious’, which will be open over a six month period at its Watford store. If successful, the chain says it will look to expand the vegan counter across other locations. Asda operates more than 600 stores in the UK.

Like a traditional meat counter, Veelicious features a range of meat options, as well as cheeses, sauces, and ready-meal kits, all made from plants.

The announcement comes as a record number of people — more than 500,000 — have pledged to participate in Veganuary. The UK-based campaign urges people to go vegan for the entire month of January for their health and the planet.

 “The demand for vegan products is on the rise and we have seen a surge in people seeking out ways to easily enjoy a plant-based lifestyle,” Asda’s Chief Strategy Officer, Preyash Thakrar, said in a statement. He says Asda launched the counter now, because it recognised the importance of helping its customers with their “Veganuary journey.”

Demand for vegan meat and cheese is on the rise. The trend has been growing across the U.S., Canada, and Europe. Stand-alone vegan butchers like the Herbivorous Butcher in Minnesota and the Very Good Butchers in Canada can hardly keep up with demand. Very Good Butchers has been so successful it went public last year. The Netherlands’ Vegetarian Butcher saw spiking sales ever since it sold to Unilever in 2019. And supermarkets like California’s Bristol Farms added its own vegan butcher counter in 2019, focusing on a local vegan meat producer, Uncut.

Tesco Meat Counter Closed
Tesco Meat Counter | image: Tenterden, Kent – The Jewel of the Weald

Meat and Fish Counters on the Decline

The trend also comes as meat and fish counters across major supermarkets continue to shut down. 

Tesco announced several major fish and meat counter closures over recent years, citing poor performance as the main reason. Last November, Sainsbury’s also announced it was closing its meat and fish counters. 

“The accelerated shift online will not reverse,” a Sainsbury’s representative told CNN. That shift isn’t just decreasing interest in meat or fish but also the impact of COVID-19. Consumers are doing more shopping online. They’re also reducing their meat consumption as a result of the outbreak, which was traced to a wet market in China.

U.S. slaughterhouses and meat-packing facilities also turned consumers toward healthier options. These facilities were some of the hardest-hit operations with widespread COVID infections. Traces of the COVID-19 infection were found in frozen meat samples last summer. As late as last November, China had discovered COVID-19 on frozen pork.

According to CNBC, some estimates put the meat industry’s losses at $20 billion for 2020. 

The pandemic saw an already thriving vegan meat market experience record-setting sales. Coronavirus shopping habits saw an increase in vegan meat sales spike by 264 percent. According to MarketsandMarkets, the plant-based meat market was valued at approximately $4.3 billion in 2020, reaching $8.3 billion by 2025.

Of course, it’s not just vegan meat sales on the increase. Fodder for meatless butcher counters are coming from the produce aisles, too. In recent years both Whole Foods Market and Harrods launched “vegetable butchers” — counters preparing fresh-cut vegetables — as demand for plant-based food skyrockets.

Asda will decide whether to keep or expand its vegan butcher counter later this year. But even if the counter doesn’t succeed, the trend is undoubtedly here to stay. Tesco, the UK’s largest chain, says it will increase its vegan offerings 300 percent by 2025. The news comes after leading home furnishings giant, IKEA, announced it will make half of its cafe menus vegan by 2025. 

Unilever also recently released ambitious sales targets for its plant-based offerings. That’s part of its move toward reducing its overall greenhouse gas emissions. In a blue-chip first, it’s also inviting shareholders to vote on its climate policies at its shareholder meeting set for this spring.

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