Waterloo Region Record

Chains fighting in protein war

Plant-based proteins are dividing us more than ever. We need a truce, and fast.


The great protein war is heating up as several major restaurant chains embrace the plant-based movement while others firmly position themselves as guardians of the mighty meat-eater. It’s getting hard to keep track.

A&W, Canada’s first Beyond Meat ambassador, started it all a little over 12 months ago with its surprising­ly successful campaign.

Since then, grocers have all jumped on the Beyond Meat bandwagon. And now many other restaurant chains are making their position on plantbased dietsquite public — so much so that A&W’s pioneering move has been somewhat lost in all the noise about plant-based diets.

In cattle country, where A&W was hated as much as the taxman, beef producers now have many targets to chose from. Tim Hortons, Burger King and Subway, just to name a few, have embraced plant-based products in recent months.

The case made by Restaurant Brands Internatio­nal (RBI) is interestin­g. Tim Hortons and Burger King, both owned by RBI, appear to be hedging on plant-based protein. Early in the summer, Tim Hortons added many Beyond Meat products to its menu while Burger King introduced the Impossible Whopper, using Impossible Foods’ patties; both chains are going plant-based, but with different suppliers.

Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, the two leading contenders for top supplier of plant-based products, have had busy summers. As soon as Burger King announced its partnershi­p with Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat made public its associatio­n with Subway, followed by one with Dunkin’ Donuts. Then, the internatio­nal institutio­nal food prep giant Sodexo announced it was working with Impossible Foods. Confused yet?

Not a week goes by in which we don’t hear about a major restaurant chain going plant-based.

Tim Hortons’ commitment to Beyond Meat points to how inclusive the chain wants to be. Timmy’s is mostly known for its non-meat offerings and now is serving something for everyone.

Burger King’s case is a little more complicate­d since it makes its money mostly selling burgers. After running pilot programs for a few months in American markets, it’s offering the Impossible Whopper across the U.S.

It didn’t take skeptics long to criticize Burger King’s plant-based move.

Some vegans make the point that the chain intends to cook Impossible Whopper patties on the same grill as patties from “dead cows.” As a result, Burger King is telling customers they can have their Impossible Whopper patties cooked separately if desired. Simply adding a plant-based option to the menu is no longer enough — chains are being held accountabl­e for what goes on in the kitchen as well.

Burger King’s decision to partner with Impossible Foods may seem surprising but the chain was clearly motivated by McDonald’s very public stance on meat consumptio­n.

As Chipotle Mexican Grill and Arby’s did earlier this summer, McDonald’s is doubling down on beef and has no intention of offering meat alternativ­es any time soon. Seeing McDonald’s Canada go in any other direction would have been surprising. For a long time, the chain has prided itself on promoting Canadian beef and other commoditie­s grown and produced here. It would have been awkward for McDonald’s to add any plant-based products to its menu.

McDonald’s is also a key stakeholde­r in the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainabl­e Beef, an initiative launched to give beef a greener reputation. Its commitment to beef and its customer base remains the same. In 2003, McDonald’s offered a veggie burger, which was awful, and dropped it a few years later as if its failure was almost by design.

This summer has become a high point in the protein war, the divisive quest to see a more pluralisti­c protein marketplac­e. The way the food service industry is using the mainstream emergence of plant-based diets as a lightning rod seems to be further polarizing our discussion about the future of proteins.

Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, Maple Leaf Foods with its Lightlife product, Montreal-based Vegeat, and many other plant-based product providers are trying to democratiz­e the notion of proteins. As a result, we’re seeing more innovation from the food industry than we have in the last 20 years.

Proteins are making everyone in the food industry think differentl­y about their products, at the meat counter and beyond.

We should be thankful for what’s happening but let’s hope a truce in the protein war occurs soon. A divisive debate is never desirable, especially when food is involved.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distributi­on and policy at Dalhousie University, and a senior fellow with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.

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