Where’s the Beef? (Literally)

Burger King’s shocking new meatless Whopper mirrors how traditional meat producers are reinventing themselves.

As if to sneer at the whole organic and health food trend, Burger King had been introducing new sandwiches that piled on the meat. There was the Big King XL, boasting 175% more beef than the McDonald’s Big Mac; then the Steakhouse King came stacked with two burgers, three slices of bacon, fried onions, cheese, and mayonnaise.

That’s why the “Home of the Whopper” sent social media into a craze this week when it introduced its newest burger—with no meat. This one is a meatless, vegetarian burger made from one of the most disruptive start-ups in the food industry. Tyler Howells, managing associate with Korn Ferry’s Agribusiness practice in North America, says Burger King’s meatless “Impossible Whopper” mirrors how large meat producers and manufacturers such as Cargill Meat Solutions, JBS USA, Archer Daniels Midland, and others are trying to disrupt themselves with meatless alternatives.

“It’s really telling of what is happening throughout the meat industry and where it is going,” says Howells. “There is more focus than ever before on the technology side of food engineering.”

Over the last 10 years, as the worldwide population has grown, so has the meat industry’s fortunes. Global meat consumption rose by 2% per year over that time; the US Department of Agriculture estimates the amount of meat eaten in the United States alone last year totaled 100 billion pounds. As the global population increases, the demand for meat is expected to grow even further over the next several decades.

But with the industry’s production capabilities already strained, more attention is going toward developing protein-based meat substitutes. As the New York Times noted, the Impossible Whopper “creates an interesting alliance between a fast-food chain that promotes its devotion to beef on every Whopper wrapper (‘100% Beef With No Fillers’) and a start-up that is committed to getting people to stop eating beef.” Put another way, Burger King’s association with Impossible Foods is at once a massive validation of plant-based meat alternatives and a chance to adapt its menu options to shifting consumer tastes—though it stresses that the Impossible Whopper is designed with meat eaters in mind.

Howells says this new paradigm is changing how meat producers recruit and retain talent. “Traditional meat companies are adjusting to tech innovation, and are battling for research and development talent,” he says. Think of it this way: not unlike toy manufacturers or smartphone makers, meat producers need to keep evolving their product lines.

In fact, Howells says, an emerging trend among meat producers is to seek out talent with backgrounds in consumer product goods. “Marketing and understanding consumer behavior is so important for the industry right now,” he says.

To be sure, even as tech engineering moves into traditional meat production and manufacturing, farmers in states across the country have been actively pursuing legal action to stop companies like Impossible for marketing their products as meat. But for now, this meatless option reigns at this one chain.