Could 2020 mark the end of peak meat? Let’s examine the evidence.  

COVID-19 sent seismic shocks through the economy and culture during this challenging year, and the widening chasm opened by the pandemic shone a bright light on the atrocities of our animal-based food system. Slaughterhouses and animal-processing plants, including those owned by Tyson Foods, Smithfield and JBS USA, became COVID hotspots. The result was deaths, employee walkouts, brief shutdowns and finally President Trump ordering meat plants to stay open with an executive order he said would “solve any liability problems” for the corporate giants. 

Despite his assurance, lawsuits against the major meatpackers stacked up as the year progressed. 

Meanwhile, vegan meat sales soared in 2020 as popular culture suddenly had an increased awareness of the inconvenient reasons (climate change, pandemics) that have compelled people like me to speak out against eating animals.

Add this all up and projections from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization predict global animal-based meat consumption will have slipped by 3 percent in 2020. The U.N. cites growing interest in vegan meats, the prevalence of livestock diseases, and pandemic-related slaughterhouse closures as the cause. Such a dip would make 2020 only the third year since 1961 that global meat consumption has dropped. The last year was 2019.

Right out of the gate, the new year brought a British court ruling that ethical vegans are a protected class. Then, once the pandemic hit, major media outlets began covering the triple-digit supermarket sales increases in plant-based meats and dairy products. In May, the New York Times even ran an opinion piece by author Jonathan Safran Foer titled “The End of Meat is Here.” 

In June, animal rights protests erupted around the world after activist Regan Russell was struck and killed by a truck carrying live pigs to the Fearman’s Pork slaughterhouse in Burlington, Ontario. Russell, a vegan, was at the slaughterhouse with Toronto Animal Save to give water to the pigs (who are transported without any) and in protest of a law passed by the Ontario Legislature banning activists from approaching transport vehicles.

During the summer, tests of imported food in China detected coronavirus on chicken wings shipped from Brazil and frozen shrimp sent from Ecuador. Researchers in Singapore and Ireland found that the virus can live on animal-based meat for three weeks. 

By September, Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) were joined by a coalition of 300 farm, food and environmental advocacy groups to urge Congress to pass the Farm System Reform Act, which would ban confined animal feeding operations nationwide by 2040. 

Surprisingly, Democrats weren’t the only ones talking about eating animals in 2020. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) told “Fox & Friends” back in May that people may “have to go a little vegan” to cope with meat shortages, while Vice President Mike Pence warned Iowa factory farmers in August that if Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were elected, Harris would “cut America’s meat.”

Similar stories were unfolding across the globe, with government cafeterias in Denmark strongly encouraged to serve more all-vegetarian food, public schools in South Korea adding vegetarian meals and a Chinese official proposing the government serve only vegetarian dishes at official events. France even banned the live-shredding of male chicks (considered a waste product by the egg industry).

ANIMAL-BASED MEAT TANKS

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Tyson Foods meats plant in Waterloo, Iowa. Jeff Reinitz/The Courier via AP

The massive pig-slaughtering facility owned by Tyson Foods in Waterloo, Iowa, where 20,000 pigs are killed each day, briefly closed in the spring but reopened to provide “a vital market to hog farmers.” Yet as worker deaths at the Waterloo facility mounted through the year, lawsuits seeking compensation for the family members left behind also grew. The lawsuits allege Tyson failed to implement workplace safety measures, allowed employees with the virus to clock in, and falsely assured the public the plant was safe.

JBS USA also refused to compensate the families of workers who died in their slaughterhouse outbreaks and was served with similar lawsuits. Earlier in the year, after the Centers for Disease Control released a report finding Black, Latino and Asian meatpacking employees were more likely to become infected with the virus than white workers, advocates filed discrimination complaints against JBS and Tyson.

A lawsuit filed in April exposed working conditions at a Smithfield Foods pig slaughterhouse in Missouri, alleging employees suffered urinary infections from lack of bathroom access and couldn’t cover their faces when sneezing due to the unreasonable pace of the work.

Then in November the firing of the management team at that Tyson Foods slaughterhouse in Waterloo revealed that the managers were wagering on how many employees would get sick. So far, more than 1,000 of the plant’s 2,800 workers have been infected with COVID-19, which has killed at least six and sent many others to the hospital.

VEGAN MEAT, SO 2020

Before the pandemic hit, 2020 started on an upbeat note, with more than 400,000 people participating in the annual Veganuary challenge and a fun-loving group of shirtless men (less than 6 feet apart) taking a Meaty March through London handing out free vegan burgers. 

Next, vegan food swept the annual awards-show season, as the Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice Awards and Oscars all served vegan menus in 2020, earning praise from many including actor Joaquin Phoenix, who used his award speeches to promote animal rights.

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New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

Headlines in 2020 took note of New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton’s vegan lifestyle, actor Robert Downey, Jr.’s announcement he’d joined team vegan, and musician Lizzo’s vegan recipe sharing on Tik Tok. Speaking of Tik Tok, vegan actor Tabitha Brown was named one the top 10 creators on the social media site, where her carrot bacon recipe went viral.

Once the pandemic hit, things took a serious turn as vegan meat producers, veggie burger companies and tofu makers struggled to keep up with soaring demand. A survey conducted pre-COVID and repeated in August, found 30 percent of respondents tried plant-based meats for the first time during the pandemic.

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AP Photo/John Raoux

Vegan meat market leader Beyond Meat was absolutely everywhere this year, including selling value packs of its vegan patties for as low as $1.60 per burger during barbecue season, and hiring actress Octavia Spencer to star in its first-ever TV commercial. This was just one of at least three TV spots showcasing Beyond Meat in 2020.

Superstar Snoop Dogg headlined Dunkin’s ad for its new Beyond Meat breakfast sausage sandwich, while Pizza Hut aired TV commercials showcasing its Beyond Meat sausage pizza. At the same time, KFC continued to sell out of its Beyond Fried Chicken as it became available at select locations.

Fast food company El Pollo Loco also added vegan chicken to its menus, while late adopter McDonald’s finally added a vegan burger, the McPlant.

Furniture store and restaurant chain IKEA announced that by 2025 80 percent of its packaged foods and at least half of its cafe meals will be plant-based. The IKEA bistros already sell vegan Swedish meatballs and vegan hot dogs.

Holiday favorite Tofurky, which has been around for more than 25 years, reported sales of its plant-based roasts rose 22 percent in the weeks before Thanksgiving, even with Whole Foods joining Trader Joe’s in selling its own private label vegan roast.

LABEL IT VEGAN

The fight over vegan food labels continued in 2020 with plant-based food companies racking up the biggest wins. 

In August, a U.S. District Court judge in California ruled that vegan cheese company Miyoko’s Creamery can continue to use the word “butter” on packages of its vegan butter despite threats from California’s agriculture department. Then in October, the European Union OK’d the use of words such as “burgers” and “sausage” for vegan foods, but left vegan milks and vegan yogurts in legal limbo.

Back in the U.S., cow’s milk giant Borden filed for bankruptcy, while White Castle became the first major fast food company to offer a choice of vegan cheese. Dunkin’ added oat milk lattes. 

Those streaming their way through the pandemic had many veg-oriented films to watch, including two documentaries about the life and death of activist Russell; the medical documentary “Code Blue,” exploring doctors’ lack of knowledge of the medical efficacy of plant-based diets; and “Baby Hers,” a documentary exposing the painful truth behind how humans obtain cow’s milk, which won a Gold Remi Award at the WorldFest-Houston International Film & Video Festival.

Also during 2020, the Vegetarian Museum in Chicago rebranded as the Vegan Museum.

One dire scientific report after another was published in 2020 linking animal consumption to impending natural disasters. These included the United Nations’ report warning that humans will be plagued by more novel zoonotic diseases, like coronaviruses, ebola and West Nile, as climate change accelerates, more wildlife habitats are destroyed and animals continue to be confined on intensive farms.

But we could choose a gentler path.

When former President George W. Bush eulogized civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis during his funeral at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta last July, Bush spoke about Rep. Lewis’ care of chickens as a child. Bush said, “When his parents claimed one for family supper, John refused to eat one of his flock. Going hungry was his first act of nonviolent protest.”

We all have the power to do the same at the dinner table three times a day. And as more people than ever before lean into a plant-based diet, 2020 could mark the end of peak meat. 

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at
[email protected]

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila

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