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KFC and Beyond Meat to test meatless 'chicken' nuggets

Can the duo make plant-based chicken taste "finger lickin' good"?

  • KFC will give out free samples of its new meatless "chicken" nuggets and boneless wings at one Atlanta restaurant on Tuesday.
  • KFC has already tested a meatless "chicken" sandwich in the U.K., where it sold out of the product in four days.
  • The alternative meats industry is booming. One recent report predicts that by 2040 about 60 percent of the "meat" people consume will come from plants.

In 2018, White Castle became the first U.S. fast food restaurant to offer a plant-based burger, the Impossible Slider. Since, other major chains — among them, Burger King, Umami Burger, and Carl's Jr. — have joined the meatless movement, adding to their menus plant-based burger alternatives made by Impossible Foods or rival Beyond Meat. By nearly every metric, these meatless burgers have been a smash success.

Now, the question is: are American consumers and the alternative meat industry ready for meatless "chicken"?

On Tuesday, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Beyond Meat hope to find out. The pair plans to give out free samples of vegan, plant-based "chicken" nuggets and boneless wings at a location in Smyrna, Atlanta on Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

"KFC Beyond Fried Chicken is so delicious, our customers will find it difficult to tell that it's plant-based," said Kevin Hochman, president and chief concept officer for KFC U.S. "I think we've all heard 'it tastes like chicken' — well our customers are going to be amazed and say, 'it tastes like Kentucky Fried Chicken!'"

In addition to free samples, KFC plans to offer its Beyond Fried Chicken dishes at prices close to its core menu items: $6.49 for a six-nugget combo meal (with a side and medium drink) and $8.49 for a 12-piece combo meal, while boneless wings are $6 for six, or $12 for 12.

Hochman told CNBC that the company is specifically interested in attracting "flexitarians" (people who still eat meat, but less of it) and customers who used to dine at KFC but stopped eating meat.

"Our primary driver is more traffic, to attract some new customers, as well as get more existing customers to come in more often," Hochman said. "We think this will get people to come in more often."

It certainly attracted customers in the U.K., where KFC recently launched a market test of its vegan chicken burger. The restaurant sold out of the meatless sandwich in four days, and KFC noted that sales for the item exceeded those of an average burger restaurant by 500 percent.

Depending on the sales numbers in the upcoming Atlanta test, "a broader test or potential national rollout" will be considered, KFC said in a statement.

​The explosion of meat alternatives

Sales of plant-based foods have increased by a staggering 31 percent over the past two years. That might sound strange after considering that only about 5 percent of Americans identify as vegetarian, while 3 percent identify as vegan, according to a 2018 Gallup poll. But there are plenty of other Americans who —while not ready to ditch meat altogether — say they want to eat less of it.

"Most surveys definitely show that anywhere between 30 and 50 percent [of people] are interested in cutting down on meat," Becky Ramsing of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future told HuffPost.

Why? The most common reasons include shifting attitudes on animal welfare, and concerns about health and climate change. As studies continue to link between meat consumption (specifically processed and red meats) and certain types of cancer, it's easy to see why meat alternatives grown via cellular agriculture would be appealing to consumers. What's more, lab-grown meat would virtually eliminate concerns over:

  • pathogens such as Salmonella and E. Coli
  • fecal contamination
  • meat and seafood growth hormones
  • mad-cow disease prions
  • botulism
  • swine and avian flu, and other illnesses
  • plastic particles in "seafood"
  • mercury in "seafood"
  • animal-production antibiotics that accelerate the development of resistant superbugs

On the environmental side, eating less meat (especially beef) is likely one of the best ways individuals can help to curb climate change. The main reason is that raising livestock takes up massive amounts of land, both for the animals and the food used to feed them. What's more, bringing beef to market requires loads of energy, once you factor in storing, transporting, packaging and selling the meat.

Switching to a plant-based diet would lessen environmental impact. In fact, one 2017 study found that if every American ate beans instead of beef, the U.S. could achieve 46 and 74 percent of the reductions necessary to meet its emissions goals for 2020 that were pledged by former President Barack Obama.

"I think there's genuinely a lack of awareness about how much impact this sort of change can have," said study author Helen Harwatt to The Atlantic. "The real beauty of this kind of thing is that climate impact doesn't have to be policy-driven.

"It can just be a positive, empowering thing for consumers to see that they can make a significant impact by doing something as simple as eating beans instead of beef."

Taken together, these reasons — combined with better-tasting meat alternatives — suggest that the alternative meat industry is only going to grow exponentially in coming years. One recent report even predicted that, by 2040, 60 percent of the "meat" people eat will come from plants.

Of course, the industry will need to start making some seriously delicious and affordable meat alternatives if it's going to be that successful. And that might be difficult, once you realize what the next likely candidate for major market testing is: plant-based seafood.

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