KANSAS CITY – Distinguishing between a trend that endures and a fad that doesn’t is simple, Harry Balzer once told an industry group. In the late 1980s the longtime executive at The NPD Group said trends are characterized by sustained moderate growth while fad products grow at a breakneck pace, until they don’t, often quite suddenly.
Mr. Balzer made the comments shortly before seemingly unstoppable demand for oat bran dried up almost overnight. Propelling oat bran’s surge was growing awareness it is a good source of soluble fiber, believed (based on scientific research) to be helpful in lowering cholesterol and blood pressure. As word of the ingredient’s health benefits spread, oat bran was everywhere — bread, cookies, crackers, muffins, ready-to-eat and hot cereal and eventually into unlikely (and fad suggestive) products, including ice cream. The craze ended abruptly when a single 1990 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine raised doubts, concluding “oat bran has little cholesterol-lowering effect.”
Memories of Mr. Balzer’s insights and the oat bran episode were brought to mind by developments earlier this month in the market for plant-based foods and beverages. Announcing financial results, top executives of Beyond Meat, Oatly Group AB and Maple Leaf Foods painted a vastly altered picture from one not long ago when growth horizons seemed nearly limitless.
In the case of Beyond Meat, chief executive officer Ethan Brown said the most recent quarter “saw a sequential contraction in US household penetration of plant-based meat.” The tough quarter came not long after four years in which the company’s products enjoyed 132% compound annual sales growth, with sales jumping to $407 million in 2020 from $33 million in 2017. Mr. Brown blamed the weak recent demand on economic uncertainty, which he said has made fewer consumers willing to pay the spread between $8.35 per lb for Beyond Meat and $4.90 a lb for conventional ground beef. In response to the altered environment, Mr. Brown said the company is shifting its model to one supporting “a sustainable growth level,” one that allows the company to “harvest” investments it has made building scale in anticipation of much faster growth. With wide losses so far this year, Beyond Meat burned through about a third of the $780 million in cash (plus accounts receivable) the company had on hand Dec. 31. Its share price, which hit a recent peak of $221 per share in early 2021, has traded as low as $30.03 per share in August.
Oatly has been a publicly traded company just over a year, but its decline has been as steep as Beyond Meat’s. Oatly’s share price has traded this year as low as $2.75 from a post-IPO peak of $29. In its prospectus last year, Oatly highlighted the potential for it to gain share in its largest target market — the $179 billion global milk industry. Its US oat milk sales more than tripled from 2019 to 2020, hitting $267 million. Now, with growth slowing, Oatly too announced an altered approach, slashing its 2022 capital spending forecast by as much as 56%. Oatly’s cash and short-term investments fell sharpy in the first six months of the year — to $275 million, from $546 million at the end of 2021.
The third company, Maple Leaf Foods, Inc., also took steps to back away from the meat alternative market. Michael H. McCain, president and chief executive officer, said of prospective growth, “We no longer believe that it will materialize.”
While it has never regained its momentum from the late 1980s, the oat bran oat market has not disappeared and the product is widely praised in the scientific community as a way for consumers to help lower cholesterol. The market for plant-based foods is not going away either. Whether plant-based food becomes a sustainable trend and Beyond Meat, Oatly and others successfully chart a path forward in the market remains to be seen.