A Blog on KFC? Meet the New Meat
If you had told me that I would be writing a post about KFC at some point I would have laughed, but here we are. KFC is getting a lot of attention for both a plant based alternative and a 3D printed chicken nugget. Is it just noise or is something really changing? In all likelihood its a bit of both.
Plant Based KFC
You've likely heard the urban myth that they changed the name to KFC because they weren't actually using chicken any more. The reality is that the name change was more an effort to shorten the name (like Royal Bank of Canada and RBC) but they are now also moving away from their core business which was fried chicken in a variety of forms.
KFC is not only the quick service restaurant (QSR) to try a plant based alternative. It likely won't be the last. It seems to me (acknowledging my bias here) that this might be an experience that once can come closer to mimicking with a plant based alternative. There are clearly customers out there for the option. Some QSR's have found there is not sufficient demand to continue to provide the option. Tim Hortons and MacDonalds have both stopped trials but may well come back eventually. These products are not going to replace the real meat ones but provide an option for those who prefer not to eat meat. I expect those companies that continue to sell a plant based option saw a significant bump at launch (something the later adopters may not have seen) and then sales dropped back to a plateau.
As was the case in previous launches, there has been considerable criticism of KFC from the ag community. I think this is somewhat misguided. Restaurants need to provide options for a wide range of customers. Nobody shouts when a steak house offers a fish option. This isn't the end of meat as we know it. What is interesting is that some restaurants actually saw a spike in demand for meat based products when they launched plant based ones. This could happen as people come in and do a taste test and buy both products. It could also be that it provides groups with an option to try when they have a vegetarian, vegan or flexitarian who is looking for a plant based option in the group to go to this specific business. Not offering a plant based option may well hurt meat sales as these groups go elsewhere.
Plant based alternatives will continue to grow. There is no benefit to vilifying those companies who choose to introduce an offer.
KFC is also exploring a 3D printed nugget. This would use both lab raised chicken cells and some plant material. It is being positioned as an environmentally preferred option but my guess is this is just as much about cost. Nuggets aren't generally made from whole pieces of chicken so it will be much easier to mimic the taste and texture with a 3D printed product. People who order these are expecting a highly processed product - these aren't chicken purists. They might also be less concerned about this process.
This is a product that is directly replacing meat produced on a farm. I expect the plant ingredients not only help with the printing process but also with keeping the costs under control. This may well be the future of some processed products. It will take some time for the technology to deliver an affordable and palatable product. It also remains to be seen how consumers will respond. I think many will be fine but there will also be a segment who is resistant.
KFC is clearly trying things to stay relevant and competitive in the marketplace. It remains to be seen whether either or both of these innovations help them do that.
Recommended citation format: von Massow, Michael. "A Blog on KFC? Meet the New Meat". Food Focus Guelph (97), Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph, August 19, 2020.