Why Conagra Was Forced To Rethink Its Meat Alternative Offerings

Conagra Brands, a company that owns food brands as varied as Slim Jim, Duncan Hines, and Udi's, acquired the alternative meat brand, Gardein, in 2018, according to VegNews. At the time, the plant-based meat market, and especially the refrigerated segment, was in rapid growth mode, according to Food Navigator. And, Conagra hoped to grow its plant-based meat alternative burger business through the Gardein brand. Based on the success of consistent market leaders, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meats, Conagra's CEO, Sean Connelly was hoping the $10.9 billion acquisition would ultimately be worth in the vicinity of $30 billion for the company.

"We're in the process of creating the next generation of beefless burger to better compete in this popular segment," CEO Sean Connolly told investors and analysts during a late-June 2019 earnings call. The company was also planning on increasing its profile in the hot dog and sausage markets. And, with the rise of plant-based meat sales, many vendors were putting these alternatives in the fresh meat case offering an opportunity for shoppers — who came in looking for animal protein — to explore a potentially healthier, more sustainable alternative, according to another article by Food Navigator

As it turns out, however, Conagra hasn't launched a Gardein-branded plant-based burger alternative that's intended to be sold in the meat case, nor any other refrigerated plant-based meat alternative. So, what happened?

The market for refrigerated meat alternatives has flattened

Conagra's biggest meat alternative launches since acquiring the Gardein alternative meat brand have all been in the frozen foods segment, including the 2020 launch of the Ultimate Plant-Based Burger (via Conagra press release). As it turns out, Conagra was forced to rethink its strategy with regard to meat alternative offerings as it came face-to-face with the current reality of the plant-based meat alternative market.

First, market research data from 210 Analytics points to declining demand for refrigerated meat alternatives in early 2022. This decline doesn't reflect diminished interest by those already in the market for meat alternatives, but rather an apparent lack of interest by those who head to the meat case for animal protein. Conagra has seen this as a clear sign that there simply isn't room in the refrigerator case for all the alternative meat brands — including Gardein, according to Food Navigator. The upshot from all of this has seen "some retailers [starting] to move items that were in the [refrigerated] meat case to the frozen food aisle," 210 Analytics' president, Anne-Marie Roerink stated.

The good news for Conagra is how well it's doing in the frozen space. "Of the large companies, we're the only one that's growing and we're outpacing the category," Conagra's SVP of demand science told Food Navigator.