Plant-based meats bloom as coronavirus spoils meat industry

Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods find a greater foothold in the market as demand for plant-based meats rises.

  • Crowded conditions and a lack of safety protocols at meat processing facilities have created transmission hot spots for coronavirus.
  • The plant-based meat industry has grown during the pandemic, with stocks growing and new partnerships formed.
  • America's meat obsession won't change soon, but some experts forecast the start of a titanic shift.

    • Americans love meat. We view prosperity as a chicken for every pot and steak as a symbol of the middle-class lifestyle. We choke our steaming services with sizzling food porn and challenge each other to devour gut-bursting amounts of beef. Even when we aren't paying attention to meat, the average American consumes 273 pounds of it (excluding fish and seafood) per year, more than any other country.

      To sate that hunger, and growing overseas demand, meat production has trended steeply upward since the mid-20th century. In 2018 the United States produced 47 million tons of meat—that's 30 million tons more than in 1961. Then came coronavirus.

      Meat production facilities have shuttered their doors. Fast-food restaurants have run out of beef. A fearful President Donald Trump used the Defense Production Act to ensure a healthy meat supply for, um, national defense?

      But the meat industry's current predicament has proved fertile ground for its plant-based competitors.

      Where's the beef?

      The Smithfield Foods pork processing plant, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was closed indefinitely after its workers caught and spread the coronavirus.

      (Photo: Kerem Yucel/Getty Images)

      Despite panicked perceptions, the United States has plenty of food. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the country maintains an "adequate domestic supply of meat, eggs, and dairy products to meet immediate demand." Production has not halted altogether, and cold storage commodities remain robust.

      Empty shelves and higher prices, the USDA notes, are likely due to the COVID-19-fueled rush to stock up on food items and the increased demand put on grocery stores now that fewer people frequent restaurants. Instead, the meat industry's current bottleneck exists on the production side.

      Meatpacking facilities have changed little since industrialization. Workers still stand shoulder-to-shoulder to process animals moving down a conveyor belt. One worker makes a cut here, another a cut there, while another removes a body part and another packages. It's basically Modern Times as reimagined by Eli Roth.

      Workers cannot maintain social distancing, and the speed of the job prevents proper hygiene. Food companies were slow to adopt safety guidelines, and even before the pandemic, there were reports of workers forced to wear diapers because they were denied time for bathroom breaks and other basic needs.

      "It's the perfect breeding ground for really any respiratory disease," Meghan DeBolt, director of community health for Walla Walla County, Wash., told the Financial Times.

      As a result, meatpacking facilities have become hotbeds for coronavirus transmission. According to the CDC, 115 facilities across 19 states had nearly 5,000 cases of coronavirus, leading to 20 deaths.

      To curb infection, companies have slowed production, reduced staff, or stopped operations altogether. In one incident, Smithfield Foods halted operations at its Sioux Falls facility after a public disclosure revealed it was responsible for 40 percent of all South Dakota's COVID-19 cases.

      The plant-based industry takes root

      Beyond Meat's plant-based patties on store shelves at Costco.

      (Photo: Beyond Meat)

      In the face of higher prices and the meat industry's well-publicized relation with infectious diseases, Americans are trying something new: plant-based meats. According to a Nielsen report, the demand for alternatives has risen 280 percent since last year.

      Companies at the forefront of plant-based meats, such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, have been eager to supply the rising demand, and they've managed thanks to relatively unaffected supply chains and production methods that don't require the close-quarters of meatpacking. So while other industries stagger through the pandemic, plant-based meats are flourishing.

      Impossible Foods will be rolling out its Impossible Burger product to more than 1,700 Kroger Co. grocery stores nationwide. As reported by Supermarket News, that represents an 18-fold increase in Impossible Foods' retail footprint in 2020.

      "Our existing retail partners have achieved record sales of Impossible Burger in recent weeks. We expect our retail footprint to expand more than 50-fold by 2020, and we are moving as quickly as possible to expand with additional outlets and in more retail channels," Dennis Woodside, Impossible Foods' president, told Supermarket News.

      Beyond Meat, meanwhile, has enjoyed a record first quarter in 2020. The company posted revenue growth of 141% ($97.1 million from 40.2) and a stock that has roughly quadrupled since its initial public offering.

      "It's all going Beyond Meat's way. And what is Beyond Meat doing? They're cutting prices," Mad Money host Jim Cramer said. "So, the price of meat is going to go up for the regular meat, and the protein that skips the whole meat chapter is going to do well. Beyond Meat is one of the most dangerous shorts in this market."

      Though Beyond Meat remains a small company, Cramer notes, so were Amazon, Facebook, and Alphabet (Google's parent company) before their time arrived.

      Will Beyond Meat go, well, beyond meat?

      Will the pandemic shift America away from meat and toward more sustainable alternatives? Probably not. At least not any time soon.

      A Pew Research Center found that only 9 percent of Americans consider themselves vegan or vegetarian, meaning 298 million of us can enjoy a juicy burger. That's a lot of hearts and minds, and shifts in cultural eating habits can be geologic in their timeline. But it may prove a tipping point.

      Both Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat list limiting suffering and sustainability on their mission statements, and their products do sport a reduced carbon footprint compared to meat—though higher than other vegetarian alternatives such as bean patties.

      Those values are in line with younger generations and their shopping habits. It's also no coincidence that Pew found young people the most likely to identify as vegan or vegetarian, while other research has shown the cohort to be the most experimental in their shopping.

      "People don't like to be contributing to climate change and biodiversity collapse and pandemics. It feels icky, so we try not to talk about it," Rachel Konrad, Impossible Foods' COO, told Vox. "But it's in these moments when the gruesome reality of animal agriculture pierces into our consciousness—because of COVID or whatever else—that we start to wake up."

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      The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

      New research establishes an unexpected connection.

      Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

      Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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      • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
      • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

      We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

      A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

      The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

      An unexpected culprit

      The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

      What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

      "We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

      "Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

      fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

      Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

      The experiments

      The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

      You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

      For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

      Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

      The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

      However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

      The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

      As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

      The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

      The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

      "We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

      Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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