Farm Animals at the Supreme Court

The US Supreme Court will soon consider the most important case for farm animals it’s ever heard. The case, National Pork Producers Council v. Ross, challenges just one portion of one state law: California’s ban on the sale of pork from the offspring of crated sows, part of the 2018 ballot measure Prop 12. But the case is about a much broader question: can states ban the sale of any animal products based on how they’re produced?

A bad ruling thus threatens not only Prop 12, but also every state ban on the sale of cruelly produced goods: from crated pork and caged eggs to fur, foie gras, and shark fins. The Court could set a precedent that wipes out the 20 or so state and local laws banning such cruelties — including eight banning the sale of caged eggs — and that prevents any new laws like them.

The animals start out down. The Supreme Court is picky, choosing just 100 or so cases each year from over 7,000 appeals to it. It typically only takes up a case like this when at least four of its nine justices want to overturn the lower court’s ruling. And the lower court upheld Prop 12.

The Court is now accepting briefs in the case; the pork producers submitted theirs on Friday. It will hear oral arguments in the case this October, and likely issue a ruling next summer. So what’s going on, what could happen, and what can you do about it?

States that have enacted bans on the sale of caged eggs. Most are still to come into force over the next few years. Source.

What Happens in Iowa Stays in Iowa?

In 2018, Californians voted 63-37% to enact Prop 12, America’s strongest farm animal welfare law. (Thanks to the many of you who worked on and donated to the campaign!) Prop 12 banned cages and crates for pregnant sows, laying hens, and veal calves — and the sale of pork, eggs, and veal from animals kept in them.

That last part is key. California doesn’t farm many pigs; the roughly 10 million pigs producing pork for Californians are mostly confined in Midwestern states like Iowa. Prop 12 meant that if those farms wanted to sell to California, they had to remove their crates.

That bristled Iowa’s pork producers. They hate regulations (except for the ones governing farm subsidies and government pork buyouts). For years, their political champion, Rep. Steve King (R-IA), had tried to pass a federal law banning state laws like California’s. But he got turfed out of Congress for racist remarks. So the pork producers turned to the courts.

Big Pork sued California, claiming that Prop 12 is unconstitutional. Two lower courts ruled against them, relying partly on a prior ruling upholding California’s ban on the sale of foie gras.  But that precedent was from an intermediate appellate court. So Big Pork appealed to the one court who could overrule it: the Supreme Court.

A visual approximation of what’s going on. Source: iStock (yes, I actually paid for this photo).

Pork Barrel Litigation

The legal question at stake is arcane: whether Prop 12 violates the Constitution’s dormant Commerce Clause, which prevents states from discriminating against out of state producers. Puppy millers, shark fin devotees, and foie gras aficionados have all cited the same constitutional clause to sue California over its bans on their products. (The foie gras lawyer memorably invoked Martin Niemöller in one such 2014 lawsuit, writing “first they came for the foie gras, and I said nothing…”) Federal courts rejected those challenges, but none reached the Supreme Court.

So this case could set new legal ground. At stake are not just animal welfare laws, but the broader principle of whether states can ban the sale of any products based on how they’re produced. A bad ruling could thus stop states from keeping out goods produced by forced labor or with large carbon footprints.

That scrambles the usual politics. Liberal justices will worry about those consequences. But they’ll also worry about undermining federal power, as they did when the Court last ruled on a farm animal welfare law. In that case, National Meat Association v. Harris (2011), liberal Justice Elena Kagan wrote the Court’s opinion that federal law preempted California’s ban on the slaughter of sick and dying pigs. It doesn’t help that the Biden Administration is currently on the side of the pork producers, thanks to a Trump Administration position that it’s yet to reverse.

Conservative justices, meanwhile, are likely to value the interests of agribusiness and conservative states, 20 of which have filed a brief against Prop 12. But they’re also wary of reading Constitutional provisions too broadly. In fact, the two most conservative justices — Gorsuch and Thomas — may be our surest votes, since they doubt the constitutional basis of the dormant Commerce Clause itself, which they note “cannot be found in the text of any constitutional provision.”

It looks so benign. The opening page of the brief pork producers filed with the Court on Friday. (Karen Ross is listed as the respondent because she’s Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture.)

An Important Porcine Precedent

What can you do to help? American readers can ask the Biden Administration to reverse the Trump Administration’s position, and file a brief in support of Prop 12. You can ask your state’s attorney general to join a states’ brief in support of Prop 12, and not one in support of the pork producers. And you can help ensure that lawmakers, the public, and the media understand how much is at stake in the case. (The legal side of the animals’ case is already in very capable hands.)

International readers can help advance a similar principle in international trade law: the right of nations to ban the sale and import of cruelly produced goods. The World Trade Organization’s appellate body has already recognized that principle in EC—Seal Products (2014), in which it rejected a challenge by Canadian sealers to Europe’s ban on the sale of most seal fur. But nations continue to resist applying even basic animal welfare laws to imports. You can help push them to, especially in the European Union, which is considering a proposal to do so.

More broadly, we can all push for laws that cover not just the production but also the sale of cruelly produced goods. Without sales bans, factory farming will just be outsourced to states and nations without animal welfare laws, inciting a race to the bottom. Whatever the Court’s ruling, animals deserve better than that.

Have we hit peak plant-based meat?

Plant-based pessimism

After two years of record sales growth, US retail sales of plant-based meat stagnated in 2021. Sales flatlined at $1.4B last year, as the velocity of sales — how quickly it flew off shelves — fell by 14%, per new data from the Good Food Institute and Plant-Based Foods Association. And because prices rose, the volume of plant-based meat sold fell by 7% in the year through February 2022.

Animal-based meat retail sales also fell by about 8% by volume over the same time period. But the value of retail meat sales rose because meat prices were up more than plant-based prices. And the volume of meat sold last year still rose thanks to soaring restaurant sales.

We don’t know if the same thing happened for plant-based meat — there’s no reliable restaurant sales data. But it seems unlikely, given most plant-based meat is sold at retail. For example, for Beyond Meat, one of only two brands with a major fast food presence, restaurant sales were only a third of retail sales last year.

Indeed, Beyond was especially hard hit. Its US revenues fell for the first time last year, despite what it described as “increased investments in marketing activities.” It didn’t help that KFC, Dunkin’, Pizza Hut, and Panda Express all ended limited time offerings of Beyond products, or that analysts recently reported weak sales of Beyond’s McPlant at the 600 US McDonald’s outlets trialing it.

All this has led to a plunging share price for Beyond Meat, and a flurry of pessimistic news articles, like this one in the Financial Times entitled, “Has the appetite for plant-based meat already peaked?” Has it?

US plant-based meat retail sales stayed constant by value in 2021 and fell by volume in the year to February 20, 2022. Source: SPINS sales value data compiled by the Good Food Institute and the Plant-Based Food Association. IRI sales volume data compiled by The Food Institute.

A bump, not a peak

I don’t think so. The most likely explanation of the drop in plant-based meat retail sales is that 2021 just saw a one-off correction after a year of unusually high growth. In 2020, US plant-based meat retail sales rose by 40% by volume, as people stockpiled food during COVID. Just maintaining that elevated sales level was always going to be hard.

Previously, plant-based meat retail sales had been growing by about 15% annually. The slight dip in 2021 just restores this roughly 15% growth rate for 2019-21. That’s consistent with what happened with plant-based ice-cream, cheese, and butter, each of which saw dollar growth rates fall by 25-40 percentage points in 2021 (though all still had slight positive sales growth).

Meanwhile, Beyond’s woes most likely reflect a healthy increase in competition in the plant-based meat space — and less healthy supply chain problems at Beyond. Beyond complained of “frequent aggressive discounting” by its competitors, but that’s good news for broader adoption of plant-based meat. The two other publicly-owned companies with plant-based meat brands, Maple Leaf Foods (Lightlife and Field Roast) and Kellogg’s (Morningstar Farms), made similar complaints of fresh competition in reporting weak 2021 sales.

Other signs for plant-based meat remain robust. America’s biggest retailers continue to bet on category growth; most recently, Amazon and Kroger both announced major new plant-based meat lines, the latter in collaboration with Impossible Foods. So do investors, who continue to fund expansion in the space. And Google Trends data suggest interest in the category remains pretty constant.

Search interest in plant-based meat remains robust since its early 2020 spike. Source: Google Trends.

Promising, but not inevitable

Still, I think the slump in 2021 plant-based meat sales is an important reminder that we have work to do. The downturn prompted Maple Leaf Foods to ask why sales were down. It says its recent (unpublished) review found that “trial rates were super high … but consumers’ needs simply were not met, and they did not repeat purchases. As a result, the category did not reach expected levels of habituation, had very high lapse rates and very low buy rates.”

That’s a bit extreme. Last year, 64% of plant-based meat buyers purchased it multiple times — far short of meat’s near-100% repeat buy rate, though not too far short of plant-based milk’s 76% repeat rate. But Maple Leaf is probably right about consumers’ needs not being met, especially on taste and price.

2019 blind taste test of 107 American omnivores found that only 30-45% liked each of the plant-based chicken products they sampled, while 85% liked the real chicken. (More, 30-60%, liked the plant-based burgers, but 70% liked the beef burgers.) Yet, despite the worse taste, plant-based meat is still roughly twice the price of animal-based meat at retail: over the last year, refrigerated meat alternatives averaged $8.14/lb against $4.14/lb for animal meat.

The good news is that plant-based meat companies have huge scope to improve on taste and price. The 2019 taste taste results suggest some plant-based meat products are twice as well-liked as others; just improving (or ditching) the laggard products could raise the average likability of plant-based meat considerably. And a new survey suggests that, if Beyond Meat was priced the same as a beef burger, 27% would choose Beyond Meat. It also finds that plant-based meat has more elastic demand than other meats — meaning price drops should have a bigger impact on consumption.

The actions of companies, investors, and advocates can make a big difference. Plant-based meat makers can invest more in R&D and resist pressure to go to market quickly with inferior producers. Investors can help by giving them longer timeframes and funding more scale-up infrastructure. And advocates can lobby for the kind of public funding that helped secure dramatic price reductions in solar energy, batteries, and electric cars.

Above all, I think the recent sales slump is a corrective to proclamations in recent years that the takeover of plant-based meat is “inevitable.” But I think this should be a call to action, not despair: it makes the actions of everyone reading this newsletter all the more important. If plant-based meat is no sure bet, your advocacy, and funding, for multiple effective farm animal advocacy approaches is critical. And your work to accelerate the adoption of plant-based meat could help determine its success.

Ten Big Wins for Farm Animals in 2021

Looking for something to celebrate these holidays? Advocates achieved a record year of wins for farm animals and alternative proteins. Here are the highlights:

Opening Cages

After years of focused campaigning, advocates achieved milestone wins in ending the use of one of factory farming’s cruelest inventions: the battery cage.

1) Europe pledges to end the cage age

The European Commission promised the biggest animal welfare legal reform in history — a ban on almost all cages and crates for the more than 340 million farm animals caged across the European Union. The pledge was a direct response to advocates’ End the Cage Age European Citizens Initiative. The next few years now offer a unique window of opportunity to influence the scope and timeline of the Commission’s proposed ban — EU citizens can start by weighing in here — and to ensure the European Parliament and member states support it.

2) US breaks cage-free records

A third of US hens — over 100 million animals — are now cage-free, up from 7% in 2015. That’s thanks to the 360 corporate cage-free commitments and seven state cage egg sales bans advocates have secured since 2015, including most recently in Nevada. Next Saturday, the two most important of those bans will come into force, as both California and Massachusetts will stop the sale statewide of all eggs from caged hens. (California will also stop the sale of pork derived from crated pigs.) Advocates fought off multiple pork industry lawsuits seeking to unwind both laws, which should benefit over 40 million hens and 500,000 pigs alive at any time.

3) More nations reduce cage use

France’s and Italy’s hen flocks are now 64% and 60% cage-free respectively, almost double what they were five years ago, thanks mostly to advocates’ retailer-focused campaigns. This progress also aided wins beyond the EU. Next-door Ukraine announced it will replace battery cages with larger enriched cages for its 90 million hens. And in the world’s largest egg producer by far, China, the nation’s biggest retail trade group launched a new cage-free standard, while a new report found that seven of the nation’s top 20 egg producers now offer cage-free eggs, or will soon.

4) Multinationals go cage-free

Advocates won pledges to eliminate cages from the global supply chains of some of the world’s largest fast food corporations, including Yum Brands (KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell), Focus Brands (Auntie’s Anne’s, Cinnabon), and Inspire Brands (Arby’s, Dunkin’). The Humane League found that 85% of all corporate commitments to go cage-free by 2020 had been fulfilled, while Compassion in World Farming found that 71% of major companies with cage-free pledges are now publicly reporting on their progress in implementing them. That included 28 companies that fully implemented their pledges this year.

The percentage of cage-free hens has risen in all of Europe’s six largest egg producing nations, especially in Spain, Italy, and France. It’s also risen sharply in the US. Sources: European CommissionEuropean Egg Processors Association, USDA, UK egg industryFrench egg industry, CIWF EggTrack report.

No Longer Just the Alternative

Advocates, investors, and startups continued to fuel rapid growth in alternatives to animal products

5) Investors double down on alternative proteins

A new FAIRR report found that private investors invested over $7B into alternative proteins over the last decade, most of it in the last three years. It also found that the largest 25 public food and retail companies mentioned plant-based protein five times more often in investor reports in 2021 than just two years earlier. Investors likely poured more than $1B into cultivated meat startups in 2021 — more than all prior years combined — driven by a $347M raise for Israel’s Future Meat Technologies and a $100M investment by JBS, the world’s largest meat company. (Though three new techno-economic analyses also sparked a debate on cultivated meat’s scalability, well-summarized by Rethink Priorities here.)

6) The US and EU invest in alternatives R&D

The US Department of Agriculture awarded Tufts University $10M to establish a National Center of Cellular Agriculture. The Chair of the US House of Representatives Appropriations Committee, Rep Rosa De Lauro, called for “parity” in public R&D funding between animal products and alternatives — an ideal that would imply hundreds of millions more for alternatives. The EU announced €32M in new funding for alternatives R&D, and dropped plans to impose onerous labeling requirements on plant-based dairy products, after an effective lobbying campaign by alternative protein advocates.

Over the last decade, investors poured more than $7B into alternative protein. Source: Appetite for Disruption: The Last Service (Sept 2021), report by FAIRR, which can be requested here.

More Wins in Europe

Beyond the cage ban, advocates achieved a set of major wins in Europe.

7) Europe’s biggest nations push reforms

France and Germany banned the killing of day-old male chicks, and joined five other nations in calling for an EU-wide ban. (The Italian Parliament voted for a similar ban, though it still needs Senate approval.) Britain’s government pledged a partial live export ban and subsidies for farm animal welfare improvements, and said it was “considering the case for … [restricting] farrowing crates for pigs and cages for laying hens.” Germany’s new coalition government pledged mandatory animal welfare labels on meat and subsidies for meat alternatives, as its new (vegetarian) agriculture minister vowed to be his country’s “highest animal welfare advocate.”

8) European food companies up the ante

Germany’s four largest retail groups all pledged to stop selling the worst factory farmed animal products over the next decade, potentially sparing hundreds of millions of animals from the worst conditions. The largest Dutch retailer, Albert Heijn, and the largest Danish retailer, Salling Group, both agreed to stop selling chicken with crippling low welfare genetics. Another 77 European food businesses committed to improve the welfare of broiler chickens, including fast food giant Subway, which adopted a pan-European commitment.

9) Fur farms fall

France, Estonia, Ireland, and Italy banned fur farming. They joined eight other European nations, including major fur producers Poland and the Netherlands, in calling on the European Commission to ban fur farming across the EU. One of Europe’s largest fashion houses, Kering (Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent), went fur-free. The world’s largest fashion publisher, ELLE, pledged to stop featuring fur in all its magazines.

10) Fish finally get their day

The European Commission proposed a series of future scientific opinions on the welfare of commonly farmed fish species; in the past, such opinions have often led to new legislation. German retailers signed on to new fish welfare standards, and German wholesaler Metro AG announced new fish welfare standards in Turkey. The British government leaked that it is mulling new fish welfare legislation. It also expanded its animal sentience bill to include octopuses, crabs, and lobsters as sentient beings, after an independent review concluded there is strong evidence of their sentience.

Thank you for everything you did to make this inspiring progress possible. Your contributions — of money, time, and talent — are the lifeblood of our movement, and I’m deeply grateful for them. Wishing you happy holidays and a wonderful new year!

An End to Cages in Europe?

The European Commission has promised the biggest animal welfare legal reform in history — a ban on almost all cages and crates across the European Union (EU). If enacted, the ban would cover more than 340M caged hens, rabbits, pigs, and other animals. It could also set a new global standard for farm animal welfare.

A major fight now looms. This Monday, several EU governments told the Commission that its proposal was too ambitious, and requested extensions and loopholes. Europe’s powerful farm lobby, Copa and Cogeca, is already lobbying to weaken the measure.

This presents advocates with a unique opportunity: over the next five years the EU will decide the fate of cages in Europe — and perhaps beyond. So what’s being considered, why is it happening, and how can advocates ensure it succeeds?

The Proposal — And What Comes Next

A few weeks ago, the Commission said it will propose new legislation by the end of 2023 to ban cages for the six most commonly caged species of farm animals in Europe. This is a big deal: the EU hasn’t enacted new farm animal welfare laws in over a decade, and only the Commission can propose such legislation. The Commission will spend the next two years deciding on the details, like when to ban cages by, what to replace them with, and how to enforce the ban.

The core proposal, though, is clear: the Commission committed to “phase out and finally prohibit the use of such cage systems” across the EU. The primary beneficiaries of this proposal will be hens: 180M of them are currently caged, plus another ~65M or so pullets (young hens). It will also benefit Europe’s ~90M caged rabbits, ~5M crated sows, and more ducks, geese, and other birds (see graph below).

In 2023, the Commission’s legislation will go to the two other key EU bodies: the European Parliament and Council. Both need to approve it, and can amend (read: weaken) it. The Parliament is looking good: at the end of May, it voted 558 to 37 for a resolution endorsing “phasing out the use of cages in EU animal farming.”

The Council will be trickier: EU member states have traditionally weakened or delayed most animal welfare and environmental legislation. Sure enough, at the Council’s meeting this Monday, several EU members called for a more “realistic” timeline for implementing the ban than the Commission’s ambitious suggestion of 2027. Still, only one (Bulgaria) outright opposed the ban, while many supported it, and even traditional animal welfare skeptic Poland conceded it “is something desirable.”

The Commission’s proposal covers cages for laying hens, rabbits, pullets (young hens), broiler breeders, layer breeders, quail, ducks and geese; farrowing and gestation crates for sows; and individual calf pens. The most numerous animals affected will be laying hens and pullets, ducks, and sows. Note: (1) given the EU lacks data on pullets, I assume a similar ratio of hens:pullets as in the US (about 3:1), (2) given the EU also lacks data on how many sows are crated at any time, I assume it’s about half, since current EU legislation allows sows to be crated for half their lifespans (all farrowing and a third of gestation), (3) due to very inconsistent data, I exclude quail, and (4) I exclude broiler breeders, layer breeders, and calves because <1M appear to be caged in the EU at any time. Sources: European CommissionEurostat, and personal knowledge.

Causes of Victory

So how did we get to this point, where an EU-wide cage ban is finally in sight?

Both the European Commission and Parliament’s actions were direct responses to the End the Cage Age European Citizens Initiative. Compassion in World Farming launched that Initiative in 2018, at a time when the EU hadn’t proposed new legislation for farm animals in over a decade. (Disclosure: we partly funded the Initiative, but it wasn’t our idea, and we were skeptical it would succeed.) Over 170 groups across Europe collected 1.4M signatures to make it the sixth such initiative in EU history to collect the signatures needed to secure an official EU response.

CIWF and Eurogroup for Animals then worked with the Parliament and Commission to ensure the response was a good one. They were aided by the personal support of European Commissioners Stella Kyriakides and Janusz Wojciechowski, who oversee animal welfare and agriculture respectively. Indeed, Commissioner Wojciechowski’s Twitter feed sometimes reads like an animal advocate’s — last month he reminded industrial farmers that “animals are not machines.”

I think three broader forces also helped. First, legislative progress achieved by advocates in European nations. The Commission noted that “the request to phase out cages is in line with current developments, as several Member States have already implemented total or partial bans on cages.” In particular, the Commission was likely influenced by new partial cage bans in EU powerhouses Germany, France, and the Netherlands, and newer EU members like Czechia and Slovakia. Those were the result of years of sustained campaigning and litigation by advocates.

Second, corporate pledges to go cage-free. Advocates have won 1,360 such pledges in Europe, with the result that in 2019 the majority of European hens were cage-free for the first time. That made an ultimate end to at least hen cages seem inevitable, and reduced industry opposition. Indeed, just weeks before the Commission’s action, all four of the biggest German retailers pledged to stop selling the lowest-welfare meat over the next decade.

Third, the inclusion of animal welfare in sustainability discussions in Europe. The Commission cited the European Green Deal in its communication, noting “animal welfare plays a prominent role in the sustainability agenda….” This isn’t self-evident: the US Green New Deal embraced by Democrats ignored animal welfare, as do President Biden’s environmental plans. Instead, it’s a testament to how European advocates have kept animals in the sustainability discussion.

On June 10, 2021, the European Parliament voted 558-37 for the cage age ban. Source: screenshot of European Parliament livestream.

Commissioning a Cage Ban

So what can advocates do now to ensure the EU enacts the strongest possible cage ban?

The immediate priority is to get the Commission to propose the strongest possible legislation. The Commission is most likely to be swayed by scientific evidence showing the need for strong standards, economic analysis showing a quick timeline is feasible, and public input showing popular support. (The Commission just opened its public consultation, which I encourage European NGOs, scientists, and citizens to weigh in on.)

A special priority is to ensure the Commission’s legislation covers imports, so the EU’s caged production doesn’t just cross its borders. This will be a tough fight: most current EU animal welfare laws don’t cover imports, for fear of upsetting low-welfare trading partners, like the US, or the World Trade Organization (WTO). And the Commission’s proposal was non-committal: it said it would “assess the scope” for “some EU rules on imports,” but also floated toothless alternatives like labeling and “enhanced cooperation with trading partners.”

Thankfully, advocates have an unlikely ally in farmers, who want protections from low-welfare imports. Likely as a result, both the European Parliament and EU member states are pushing the Commission to include imports in their ban. Advocates should support them. We can draw on three helpful precedents: the EU’s ban on seal fur imports, which was upheld by the WTO; EU slaughter regulations, which already apply to imports; and the new EU-Mercosur trade deal, which gives preferential access to eggs that meet EU animal welfare standards.

A possible timeline for the EU finalizing and implementing its cage ban, showing which EU nation will occupy the rotating presidency of the EU Council at each time. (More on why this matters below.) Source: Neil Dullaghan of Rethink Priorities.

Securing the States

Advocates’ other major priority is to line up the support of key EU member states. These states not only need to approve the Commission’s cage ban proposal (as does the Parliament); they’re also the greatest threat to weakening and delaying it. Rethink Priorities’ Neil Dullaghan’s research finds that most Commission proposals get watered down, mostly by member states. I recommend reading his strategic advice on how best to avoid that here.

Two priorities stand out. The first is to secure the support of the EU member states holding the rotating presidency of the EU Council (see graphic above). Advocates are lucky: the next trio of states holding the presidency  — France, Czechia, and Sweden — all support the EU’s cage ban. The next four are more uncertain; Hungary voiced skepticism about the ban on Monday. Still there are promising signs: in recent weeks, Belgium and Poland backed a call for an EU fur farming ban, and Spain backed a call for an EU ban on killing day-old chicks.

Poland and Spain are doubly important, since they’re also critical to the second priority: securing the support of 15 EU member states accounting for 65% of the EU’s population. Advocates are likely to get enough states: there are plenty of supportive small ones like Cyprus, Luxembourg, and Malta (home to the world’s only Minister for Animal Rights). But the population threshold will be tougher. Advocates need the support of at least three of the EU’s five biggest states — France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain — to ensure the ban isn’t diluted. On Monday, these states mostly supported the ban or stayed silent, though they also raised concerns about the precise details. Advocates should focus on shoring up their support for a strong ban.

If you’re interested in helping, I recommend volunteering or donating to CIWF, Eurogroup, or one of the many other European groups working on this ban. (If you’re a major funder, Farmed Animal Funders is launching a new re-granting fund to support this work, advised by Neil — you can email him for more details at <[email protected]>.) And, if you’ve already helped, thank you for helping bring about this exciting milestone in ending cages!

How to Lower the Price of Plant-Based Meat

Note: This post originally appeared in the monthly farm animal welfare newsletter written by Lewis Bollard, our program officer for farm animal welfare. Sign up here to receive an email each month with Lewis’ research and insights into a farm animal advocacy research topic. We decided to cross-post this one because we thought it was especially interesting and wanted to make people aware of Lewis’ newsletter, but note that the newsletter is not thoroughly vetted by other staff and does not necessarily represent consensus views of Open Philanthropy as a whole.

Plant-based meat’s resilience has been a rare silver lining during COVID-19. Worldwide, the conventional meat industry continues to lobby for government bailouts, fail to protect its workers, and carry out grisly on-farm “depopulations.” But plant-based meat is thriving:

  • In China, Beyond Meat signed five major new partnerships, with Starbucks, retailers Alibaba and Metro, distributor Sinodis, and Yum China (owner of KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell). Cargill started producing meat alternatives for the Chinese market, including plant-based scallopsNestle announced plans to sell plant-based meat there by year’s end, and Chinese plant-based startups Zhenmeat and Starfield disclosed new investments and product launches.

  • In the rest of Asia, Thailand’s largest meat company, CP Foods, launched a plant-based line, as did MalaysianSingaporean, and Indian startups. Two Japanese meat giants began selling plant-based meat, as a Japanese government fund invested in the space. A South Korean investor led Impossible Foods’ latest $500M funding round, which included new investments from the Singaporean and Hong Kong funds who co-led its last funding round.

  • In Latin America, Brazilian agribusiness giant Marfrig publicized its plans to roll out plant-based burgers by year’s end. (Brazil’s two other biggest meat giants, Seara and JBS, rolled out their plant-based burgers last year.) Chile’s NotCo became likely the highest valued non-US plant-based startup, as it closed a new $85M funding round.

  • In Europe, the UK’s largest retailer, Tesco, launched more than 30 new own-brand plant-based products, as its CEO wrote that the UK should eat “less meat and dairy.” Dairy giant Danone declared its ambition to more than double its plant-based sales worldwide to around €5B by 2025, while Unilever shared that a third of its products are now plant-based. Nestle reported that plant-based sales were up 40% in the first half of the year, and its CEO called plant-based “a once-in-a-generation opportunity.”

  • In the US, Starbucks started selling Impossible breakfast sandwiches, as did Burger King, while KFC began a new trial of Beyond Fried Chicken. Impossible got into Walmart, and Beyond Meat into Sam’s Club, with the brands now available in 9K and 25K respectively of the US’ roughly 40K grocery stores. US retail plant-based meat sales continued to average about 40-50% above last year, putting them on track to surpass $1B in retail sales this year.

As a result, plant-based meat is becoming ever-more widespread and convenient. But it’s still not competing with traditional meat on one key attribute: price.

The Price Problem

The average price for meat alternatives sold in US grocers’ meat departments last year was $9.87/lb, twice the average price of beef ($4.82/lb), and fourfold the average price of chicken ($2.33/lb). Frozen meat alternatives are a bit cheaper, most recently averaging $6.60/lb, but that only puts them on par with veal ($6.67lb).

This reflects plant-based meat’s positioning as a premium product. It’s exciting that 4-5% of US supermarkets’ refrigerated meat product lines are now plant-based, given plant-based still accounts for only 0.3-.4% of meat sales by volume. But supermarkets likely only tolerate this discrepancy because they can charge a bigger markup on plant-based products.

This price imbalance may matter more than ever in the coming years. With an impending global financial recession, the FAO predicts that global meat prices will continue to fall, and only the cheapest meat — poultry — will continue to grow its production this year. (More happily, the FAO predicts total pork and beef production will fall for the first time in years.) So what can we do to help plant-based meat compete on price with ever-cheaper meat?

The cheapest product of each plant-based brand available at Walmart is pricier than the cheapest product of each meat brand. Source: Prices on (reflecting Northern California in-store prices) as of August 6, 2020, converted to $/lb.

The Wisdom of the Old

Startups, led by Beyond and Impossible, have revolutionized plant-based meat with their innovations in taste and marketing. US plant-based meat retail sales rose by just 1-3% annually from 2013 to 2016, the year when both the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger went on sale. Since then, US plant-based meat retail sales have grown by 16-18% per year.

But established plant-based companies may have more to teach us on price. The two best-selling plant-based meat brands in US retail last year were Morningstar and Gardein, founded in 1975 and 2003, with 25% and 15% of sales respectively. Along with Lightlife and BOCA, both founded in 1979, these four brands also have the lowest prices (see graph above).

How do these established companies achieve lower prices? One factor probably isn’t worth replicating: Morningstar, Gardein, and BOCA sell almost exclusively frozen products. Supermarkets typically mark frozen products up less than refrigerated ones, on which retailers charge a premium to offset increased spoilage. But this may limit the products’ potential, given a recent PBFA-Kroger study suggests that plant-based meat sells better in the (refrigerated) meat section, where 67% of US supermarkets now say they sell at least some meat alternatives.

Two other factors behind the established companies’ lower prices may hold more promise: a focus on cheap ingredients and production efficiency.

Cheap Inputs, Cheap Outputs

One of the biggest trends in plant-based meat is toward novel proteins, like mung beans, potatoes, fava beans, chickpeas, lentils, oats, lupine, and faba. This is exciting: some of these proteins may offer functional and environmental benefits. But there’s a risk to the whole industry moving in this direction — as some insiders have suggested to me it may.

Much of the low price of conventional chicken can be explained by the industry’s reliance on just three crops — corn, wheat, and soy — which currently sell for just 615 cents/lb. Morningstar, Gardein, BOCA, and Lightlife also rely primarily on two of those crops, in the form of vital wheat gluten, and soy protein concentrate and isolate. These crop byproducts are slightly pricier than chicken feed, each selling in bulk for around 50 cents/lb on Alibaba, though companies don’t have to feed them through a chicken first.

Novel proteins are much pricier. Mung bean protein starts at $2/lb on Alibaba, potato protein starts at $3/lb, fava bean protein at $4/lb, chickpea protein at $5/lb, and lentil protein at $10/lb. Slightly less novel pea protein is cheaper, starting at $1/lb, though the non-GMO and organic varieties preferred by many startups are pricier. And most of these are already large-scale crops, so it may be hard to bring prices down a lot further.

Industry insiders justify the move to novel proteins based largely on a belief that consumers dislike soy and wheat protein. They point, for instance, to the rapid growth in “soy-free” and “gluten-free” US product claims. But are consumer beliefs strong enough to justify the cost hit?

A new, unpublished, Rethink Priorities survey investigated this claim. They found that slightly more Americans said they’d eat pea-based meat replacements than soy or wheat-based versions. But even more said they’d eat generic “plant-based” meat replacements, which may just show the perils of specificity — why the chicken industry doesn’t market its product as “GMO soy-fed chicken.”

Nor is it obvious that US stigmas around gluten and soy apply to larger global markets. A 2017 survey of 2,000 Chinese consumers found they were just as interested in trying “mock meats” made of wheat or soy as of mycoprotein or potato protein. And, as of 2017, the vast majority of new European plant-based meats were based on soy and wheat protein.

An (unpublished) Rethink Priorities survey found Americans have similar stated willingness to eat different plant protein sources. N=1,004 Americans surveyed in June, 2020, on the Prolific platform. Q = “Would you eat any of the following?” Full options were: “Plant-based (vegetarian) meat replacements that taste like meat,” “Soy protein-based (vegetarian) meat replacements that taste like meat,” “Gluten or wheat-based (vegetarian) meat replacements that taste like meat,” “Pea protein-based (vegetarian) meat replacements that taste like meat.”

Scale and Simplicity

A related lesson is to focus on scaling relatively simple products. Morningstar, Gardein, Lightlife, and BOCA share another trait — they’re all owned by huge food conglomerates: Kellogg, ConAgra, Kraft Heinz, and Maple Leaf Foods respectively. This enables them to draw on their parent companies’ scale in manufacturing and distribution, and to focus mostly on the simple, processed products, like patties and nuggets, that these conglomerates know best.

By contrast, many startups focus on replicating novel products that their typically vegan founders miss: from steaks to fancy cheeses. For many, this focus on white space makes sense as a way to differentiate themselves in a crowded market. But the focus on novelty often causes them to rely for scale on contract manufacturers, who process their products with inconsistent quality and a consistent markup.

Rebellyous Foods is a notable exception. It’s pursuing just one simple product, plant-based chicken nuggets, and focusing on streamlining and scaling its production process. As its founder Christie Lagally explains, most plant-based manufacturing relies on off-the-shelf equipment never intended for this use, limiting production speed and quality, and requiring skilled technicians to make frequent repairs.

In focusing on production efficiency, Rebellyous is pursuing the strategy the chicken industry used to achieve its current global dominance. Since the 1930s the chicken industry has done little product innovation — the invention of McNuggets is still its proudest accomplishment. But it has lowered the price of chicken several fold by relentlessly cutting costs and breeding for feed efficiency (at great expense to the birds’ welfare).

Beyond and Impossible seem to be applying these lessons. Both have stuck to just a few products and invested in their own manufacturing plants. Beyond appears to have cut its cost of production from about $4.50/lb when it listed last year to $3.50/lb today (calculated based on dividing its production volume by its cost of goods sold in its most recent SEC filing). And Impossible switched to GMO soy last year — earning it the enmity of anti-GMO groups — likely mainly to cut its ingredient costs.

As the world’s three largest meat companies, TysonJBS, and Cargill, expand their plant-based offerings, there should be even more focus on scale and cost. Startups will likely continue to drive the most exciting innovations in the space. But we’ll need both that innovation and the big players’ relentless focus on efficiency and scale to make plant-based meat not just the right option, but the tastier and cheaper one.

Will Companies Make Good on Cage-Free Pledges?

Note: This post originally appeared in the monthly farm animal welfare newsletter written by our farm animal welfare team. Sign up here to receive regular email updates with research and insights into a farm animal advocacy research topic. We decided to cross-post this one because we thought it was especially interesting and wanted to make people aware of the newsletter, but note that the newsletter is not thoroughly vetted by other staff and does not necessarily represent consensus views of the Open Philanthropy Project as a whole.

From 2015-17, advocates secured pledges from over 300 US food companies to eliminate battery cages for the more than 240M egg-laying hens in their supply chains, mostly by 2025. (Advocates also secured another 800+ pledges from non-US food companies — the subject of a future newsletter.)

This was a big win for the farm animal movement. Fewer than 50 full-time advocates pushed the $9B US egg industry to commit to eliminate its core business practice — confining hens in tiny cages — at a cost to the industry of $7B-$9.5B. A 2016 Washington Post front-page story declared a “victory for the animal welfare movement”, noting that even egg producers think a “cage-free future is a fait accompli.”

In an excellent new post, Rethink Priorities’ Saulius Šimčikas assesses the cost-effectiveness of these campaigns and the global cage-free ones that followed them. He finds that, even accounting for the millions spent on investigations and other advocacy that only indirectly supported the campaigns, they affected 12 to 160 years of animal life per dollar spent.

But, two years on, there are worrying signs that some companies may not follow through on their pledges. Marriott and Burger King postponed their 2015 and 2017 pledges, while Disney and Hilton only partially fulfilled theirs. Some egg producers have halted cage-free conversion plans, citing weak demand. A new survey finds the largest US egg producers think most hens will still be caged in 2025.

A great new report by Charity Entrepreneurship’s Karolina Sarek reflects this concern. She reviews historical and industry evidence that weighs on the topic, for instance finding that four major food companies kept only about half of their corporate social responsibility pledges since 2000. She concludes that we should expect just under half of companies making new animal welfare pledges to follow through on them.

Even legislative bans are under threat. Michigan egg producers, who in 2009 supported a compromise cage ban to take effect in 2019, have been lobbying to delay the ban’s implementation. And while the King Amendment is now happily dead, 13 factory farm states are continuing a federal lawsuit to strike down California’s and Massachusetts’ cage bans.

So are we doomed to a future with battery cages?

The Good News

I don’t think so. US egg producers aren’t scrapping cages fast enough, but they are scrapping them. In 2014, the year cage-free corporate campaigns began in earnest, 17M hens, or 6% of the US flock, were cage-free; today 67M hens, or 20% of the national flock, are. That trend should continue: egg producers say they plan to add or convert cage-free housing for 12M hens in 2019 (though they also plan to add cages for 1M). Given most pledges only come due in 2025, it’s surprising there’s already been this much progress.

The US cage-free flock
The US cage-free flock has expanded significantly since corporate campaigns began in 2014. Source: USDA.

The progress has been driven by major retailers. Costco has achieved the most impressive gains: when advocates waged a major campaign against it, in 2015, 26% of its eggs sales were cage-free; today 89% are. The four biggest grocers in America — Walmart, Kroger, UNFI (Supervalu), and Albertsons — are less far along, at 1229% cage-free, but still collectively account for about 14M cage-free hens due to their scale.

Prices suggest this progress will continue. The egg industry has pitched numerous media pieces on weak consumer demand for cage-free eggs. But USDA data shows that retailers are selling cage-free eggs for 2-3X the price of caged eggs, even though they only cost about 36% more to produce. This is likely because retailers are using caged eggs as loss leaders and cage-free eggs for price discrimination. As cage-free eggs become the default, this should change.

Transparency should also aid this progress. Although most companies are not reporting publicly on their progress in going cage-free, that’s changing. Following McDonald’s and Walmart’s recent reports (33% and 14% cage-free respectively), eight of the ten biggest egg buyers are now reporting in some form on their progress in going cage-free. Public reporting and progress in going cage-free are correlated, though causation likely flows both ways.

Cage-free supply chains
US companies with the most cage-free hens in their supply chain, based on their public reporting. The size of each bubble represents the number of cage-free hens in each company’s supply chain. Sources: estimates of hens in each company’s supply chain, and market share, compiled from USDA data and company reporting; % cage-free data are from the companies themselves, and are not verified: Costco, Walmart, Albertson’s, Kroger, Whole Foods Market, and McDonald’s. For calculating the number of hens affected by shell egg only progress, I assume 90% of eggs sold in retail are shell eggs.

New state laws will speed this transition. Barring a court loss, Massachusetts’ Question Three and California’s Proposition 12 will require all eggs sold in both states to be cage-free by 2022. Washington and Oregon just passed similar measures, effective 2023. Assuming these states are already using about 20% cage-free eggs, their 58M residents will require another 46M more hens and pullets to be cage-free by 2024.

What can we do?

I think a few strategies are particularly promising for holding companies accountable to their pledges.

First, we need to get retailers — which the USDA estimates account for 81% of all eggs covered by pledges — to decrease their sale of caged eggs. Although some big retailers like Costco are on track, most are not. Some are even trying to weasel out of their pledges; Publix warns that weak demand “may impact our ability to reach our stated goal” to go cage-free. We should call out this nonsense. Retailers pledged to go 100% cage-free, not to wait on individual consumers, who surveys show expect retailers to enforce welfare standards. And simple changes — like charging equal markups on caged and cage-free eggs — could make a big difference to sales.

Second, we need to get companies to publicly report on their progress in going cage-free. The eight biggest egg buyers that are publicly reporting collectively account for about 105M hens, or one in three US hens. But of the next 50 biggest egg buyers — which together account for another 70M hens — only nine are publicly reporting. CIWF USA’s EggTrack and HSUS’ new scorecard are critical tools to change that.

Battery cages confine hens
What’s at stake: battery cages confine hens in tiny spaces for over a year on end without access to nests, perches, or other basic needs. Source: personal photo.

Third, we need to get companies to set milestones toward going 100% cage-free. The egg industry is right that if buyers all wait until 2025 to go cage-free there won’t be enough eggs. Instead, companies need to set earlier dates by which a certain percentage of their eggs, or all eggs used by certain brands, will be cage-free. Ahold Delhaize (which owns Giant and Food Lion) is a good example: it pledges that four of its US retail chains will go 100% cage-free by the end of 2022, with the final two going cage-free by 2025.

Fourth, we need to keep pressure on producers to transition sooner, and to better systems. New Zealand egg producers can’t keep up with rising demand for cage-free eggs they didn’t prepare for, while UK egg producers are now removing “enriched cages,” installed only a few years ago at a cost of £400M, because the market for caged eggs is collapsing. US egg producers risk making similar mistakes: some are delaying cage-free construction, while others are installing “combi systems,” which can swap between cage and cage-free. We can point out to these producers’ investors and lenders that cages and combi systems could both become “stranded assets,” worthless in a world where all big buyers only want cage-free eggs.

Fifth, we need to campaign against companies that miss their deadlines. The Humane League has now done so with Marriott and Hilton, in each case securing new, much-expanded pledges on tighter timelines. The biggest foodservice companies — Aramark, Compass Group, Delaware North, and Sodexo — all have pledges that come due this year or next, and present obvious targets for enforcement campaigns if they’re not yet 100% cage-free.

Advocates need our help in this fight. If you can contribute time, you can join these campaigns through the Fast Action Network or Hen Hero Network. If you can contribute money, you can donate to to one of the groups leading this implementation work: The Humane League, Mercy for Animals, or CIWF USA.

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Fish: The Forgotten Farm Animal

Note: This post originally appeared in the monthly farm animal welfare newsletter written by Lewis Bollard, our program officer for farm animal welfare. Sign up here to receive an email each month with Lewis’ research and insights into a farm animal advocacy research topic. We decided to cross-post this one because we thought it was especially interesting and wanted to make people aware of Lewis’ newsletter, but note that the newsletter is not thoroughly vetted by other staff and does not necessarily represent consensus views of the Open Philanthropy Project as a whole.

When we think of farm animals, we likely don’t think of carp. But this family of freshwater fish — which includes the three most populous farmed fish species in the world: crucian carp, silver carp, and catla — is likely the most numerous farmed vertebrate animal in the world, with an estimated 25-95 billion farmed every year. (About 62 billion chickens are farmed every year, but each is farmed for just 5-8 weeks, whereas carp are farmed for 12-14 months, meaning far more carp are alive at any given time.)

Fish are the forgotten farm animal. Of the more than 100 undercover investigations that U.S. animal advocates have done to expose abuse of farm animals, just one focused on fish. For a long time scientists questioned if fish could feel pain, though our internal investigation suggests there’s about as much evidence for some fish being able to feel pain as there is for birds.

When we do think of fish, it’s likely of wild ones. But the wild fishing industry hasn’t grown since 1988, largely due to the depletion of wild fisheries. By contrast, fish farming has grown sevenfold over the same time period, and now accounts for the majority of fish consumed by humans globally, including in the U.S. (More wild fish are still slaughtered for non-human consumption: about a third of captured wild fish are fed to farm animals, including farmed fish.)

Global Volume of Fish Caught and Farmed

Fish farming has boomed in the last 35 years, while wild fishing volume has stagnated. Note that these data include all marine, freshwater, and diadromous fish, but exclude crustaceans, amphibians, and other aquatic animals. Source: FAO – Fisheries and Aquaculture Information and Statistics Branch (link).

So what can we do to help farmed fish? First, we need better research and data on a few topics:

  • Farmed fish numbers. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which tallies land farm animal numbers, doesn’t count fish — it only reports tons produced. The best numbers I know of come from Alison Mood’s extrapolations from FAO data, which, adjusted for growth since 2010, suggest there are 50 to 170 billion fish farmed annually worldwide.
  • Fish welfare. Concern for fish welfare is not new: the ancient Roman treatise On Agriculture advised farmers to provide their fish with enriched environments “so that, though they are prisoners, the fish may feel their captivity as little as possible.” But aside from a few papers (e.g. here and here), modern animal welfare science has yet to answer basic questions like what kinds of environments fish prefer to live in.
  • Species differences. Almost all farmed pigs are derived from one species, sus scrofa, and confined in similar conditions globally. But humans farm finfish from 362 different species — plus another 62 species of crustaceans, 104 of molluscs, six of frogs and reptiles, and nine of aquatic invertebrates (all beyond the scope of this newsletter). These differences make providing for fish welfare harder: while territorial species like rainbow trout get stressed by overcrowding, shoal-based species like Arctic charr get stressed by under-crowding.

Fish Farmed by Volume

China is by far the world’s largest fish farming nation. India, Indonesia, and a few other Asian nations (especially Bangladesh and Vietnam) account for much of the remaining production. Source: FAO – Fisheries and Aquaculture Information and Statistics Branch (link).

Second, we need to focus on the regions, systems, and practices where the most fish are at stake:

  • East Asia. Controversy around fish farming has centered on the U.S. industry, which is small and hasn’t grown in two decades. But 88% of fish are farmed in Asia, mainly for domestic demand — the average East Asian eats three times more fish than the average American.
  • Dense inland systems. The few fish welfare initiatives to date have focused on sea cage farming in Norway and Scotland, where the industry is more receptive. But fully 87% of fish are farmed inland, typically in tanks or ponds. When I visited inland fish farms in India in March, the ponds didn’t appear obviously overcrowded. But mortality rates above 50% in common carp farms suggest that many fish are in poor health, and likely experience poor welfare.
  • Slaughter. I witnessed “harvest” at one large Indian carp farm: fish took minutes or hours to die, as they suffocated or were crushed to death. Those fish that survived may have suffered a worse fate — we saw live fish disemboweled at the market hours later. Given that 46% of fish globally are sold “live, fresh or chilled,” it seems unlikely the fate of these fish was unique.

Farmed Carp

Farmed carp attempt to flap their way back to water as they suffocate during “harvesting” at a large commercial fish farm in Andhra Pradesh, India. Source: personal photo.

Third, we should consider how we can leverage existing schemes, trends, and policies to help fish:

  • Adding animal welfare to fish sustainability certifications. About one in 20 fish farms worldwide is sustainability certified. Two schemes predominate: the Aquaculture Stewardship Council and Best Aquaculture Practices each now have over 1,000 certified facilities, and most fish sold at Kroger and Walmart carry the latter certification. These schemes have the potential to lead to improvements in fish welfare.
  • Reducing fish waste. With governments from China to the U.S. encouraging citizens to eat more fish, reducing consumption will be tough. But roughly half of U.S. seafood and a third of seafood elsewhere is never consumed — it’s lost to waste. Conservationists have rightly focused on reducing bycatch, but bycatch accounts for barely a third of fish wasted in the U.S. Advocates could support institutional food waste reduction work. (New feeds might also reduce the number of wild fish caught to feed farmed fish. But sources of these fish are already supply-constrained — volume hasn’t increased since 2000 despite booming demand — so alternative feeds might just remove a constraint to the further expansion of fish farming.)
  • Adding fish to animal welfare policies. The FAO notes that “Supermarket chains and large retailers are increasingly the key players in setting product requirements.” For U.S. chains these standards currently exclude fish welfare. But advocates can look for inspiration to the UK, where major chains, including Waitrose and Tesco, are proactively addressing fish welfare. Advocates could also build on the animal welfare codes of the World Organization for Animal Health, Council of Europe, and European Union, which, though all weak and unenforceable, are revolutionary in affording some protections to fish.

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