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Sylvain CharleboisOne of the most bizarre food stories of the year, other than the panic buying we witnessed in the spring, is this quasi-divorce between McDonald’s and Beyond Meat.

When McDonald’s Restaurants recently announced its new McPlant products will be rolled out in 2021, Beyond Meat, which had been working with the fast-food chain, wasn’t even mentioned.

Beyond Meat insists it’s still working with McDonald’s but few seem to know what its role is. It seems McDonald’s broke up with Beyond Meat but forgot to tell the plant-based giant.

In September 2019, McDonald’s international leaders chose to run a pilot with its P.L.T. in more than 40 restaurants in southern Ontario. P.L.T. (plant, lettuce, tomatoes) was co-designed with Beyond Meat.

The pilot was extended to April 2020 but once it ended, there was no announcement, no tweet, nothing. Not one drop of news – until last week.

McDonald’s claimed the plant-based burger received a positive response from Canadians. But when COVID-19 hit, one can only suspect the company got busy focusing on other things. Many even wondered whether the growing excitement around a plant-based diet would survive the pandemic.

I survived the Beyond Meat Burger – but once was enough by Michael Taube

We now know it has.

And that’s how McPlant was born (however questionable the name may be).

Beyond Meat is adamant that it’s still working with McDonald’s on various projects. But chances are that Beyond Meat is out and McDonald’s – unsurprisingly – is moving forward with its own agenda.

McDonald’s has a massive network of over 38,000 restaurants, much too big for Beyond Meat to supply. Few will be surprised to see McDonald’s integrate vertically to support a new line of products. McPlant will require supply chain alignment and changes in how outlets operate. For example, to do it right, regular patties can’t be cooked alongside McPlant patties. This is an unacceptable setup for vegans. McDonald’s won’t make the same mistake other chains have.

Beyond Meat has been around for more than a decade but only got global attention a couple of years ago. As a dominant player in the field, Beyond Meat already has a past. Many will link the plant-based movement (some would call it the fake meat phenomenon) to Beyond Meat. Its “better than beef” rhetoric has hurt the brand and the category.

In lieu of positioning the product as unique or an alternative, Beyond Meat has become its own worst enemy by encouraging consumers to ditch meat.

The reality is most Canadians still enjoy traditional animal proteins. It’s very much part of our heritage. Expecting Canadians to replace one with the other is unreasonable.

Beyond Meat’s stock reached a record US$195 a few weeks ago. But in light of lacklustre financial results and the recent announcement by McDonald’s, some analysts believe the stock could fall below US$100.

When terms like ‘fake meat’ and ‘manufactured meat’ are mentioned, the first company that comes to mind is Beyond Meat. This is its baggage and McDonald’s knows it.

McDonald’s is now fully committed to offering plant-based foods. As other chains have done, the company is making its menu more inclusive. Consuming vegetable proteins is much more socially normalized now and the pandemic hasn’t really changed anything. New statistics on plant-based diets show strong numbers.

Not offering plant-based options could lead many to pass on McDonald’s. So dietary inclusiveness is the way to go and that’s a good call by McDonald’s.

For McDonald’s Canada, specifically, it will be interesting how the scenario unfolds.

The company has always been one of Canada’s most formidable champions of agriculture. McPlant could be seen as a betrayal, especially for beef producers. So don’t be surprised if you see more McDonald’s ads promoting sustainable Canadian beef.

It’s all about playing nice with farmers and there’s nothing wrong with that.

But it’s clear Beyond Meat no longer has McDonald’s as an ally. So it may need to refine its value proposition to consumers.

Plant-based menus are about more choice, not about undermining the hard work of farmers who have provided us with quality meat products for decades.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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