There was a number written on the wall at the Rebellyous break room on a recent afternoon — 10,129. It’s the number of chickens they estimate their plant-based chicken nuggets have displaced in the food supply chain.
Puget Sound has several plant-based food companies headquartered here, and advocates of the industry say it has the potential to make people healthier while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Both of those points were on Christie Lagally’s mind as she walked the tiled floor of the Rebellyous production kitchen. The smell of chicken nuggets wafted through the room, and workers clad in white button down lab coats shuffled in and out of a cold-room as they made the dough.
Rebellyous specializes in plant-based chicken nuggets, which it’s found a market selling to institutions like Providence hospitals and the University of Washington. And Lagally isn’t shy about her ambitions for the company.
“Our goal is to replace meat on a large scale,” she said.
The company produces about 20,000 pounds of product a month. The company could make more, and hopes to, once it perfects the machinery. Most of the machinery is off-the-shelf machines designed for meat. Part of the company’s goal is to make machinery specifically for plant-based meat production and license them out.
And scaling up might be a smart move as the sale of plant-based foods has jettisoned upwards in recent years. The Good Food Institute (GFI), which tracks companies that make animal-product alternatives, said grocery sales of plant-based foods that replaced animal products grew 31% between 2017 and 2019, reaching $4.5 billion.
That was big news for Caroline Bushnell, an associate director for the Good Food Institute.
“It felt like a tipping point where it really went mainstream,” she said.
Milk remains the industry behemoth, but other products are working their way into grocery stores too. Outlets like Safeway and Albertsons have started placing plant-based meats in the refrigerated meat section, a move Bushnell said the non-dairy milk industry pulled off successfully.
Then there are success stories like the Impossible Burger, which landed in Burger King stores last year. Or local staples like Field Roast which makes vegan meats, Almande which makes yogurt and NutPod which makes creamers.
Rebellyous is a relative newcomer to the local production scene, starting two years ago. Another newcomer is the Bellevue-based Good Planet Foods, which specializes in plant-based cheese.
David Israel is the company’s founder and CEO and said he sees much room for growth in dairy. He thinks the plant-based cheese market has the potential to skyrocket in coming years, and hopes to fill a customer demand for it.
“It’s actually — we think — even a bigger category than meat, because we’re selling into major (consumer packaged goods), global companies,” Israel said.
According to GFI data, in 2019 plant-based dairy, not including milk, was a $1.2 billion industry. Its counterpart meat sector brought in more than $800 million. Milk totaled more than $1.85 billion in sales.
However, plant-based foods are still dwarfed by animal agriculture products in terms of market shares. Plant-based meats accounted for only 2% of all meat sales revenue in 2019. Even plant-based milk commanded only 13%.
But both Bushnell and Lagally said they expect those percentages to increase as younger consumers, especially Millenials and Zoomers, buy more. Health concerns and climate change are two of the biggest concerns she hears, Lagally said.
“We have a real fantastic opportunity to do something about it,” she said.
According to the United Nations, some 14.5% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions stem from agriculture. Cattle make up about 65% of that. Clearing land for livestock also reduces forestland, and space for other, less carbon-intensive agriculture.
Plant-based products, on the other hand, have a much smaller carbon footprint. A study by the University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems — commissioned by Beyond Burger — found that the burger generated 90% less emissions than a beef burger.
Part of cutting into that will be finding ways to replicate all the various preparations and products that meat can be made into. But Bushnell said that’s already happening. The GFI maintains a list of companies around the world, from Brazil to the U.S to China, where companies are working to develop new food products.