REUTERS: Perdue Foods, one of America's largest chicken producers, said it will sell frozen chicken nuggets mixed with cauliflower, chickpeas and plant protein to address a growing demand for products combining meat and vegetables.
A company executive on Friday said more blended products were in the pipeline, with Perdue aiming for its vegetable-enhanced items to become a US$100 million segment within five years, making up around 5per cent of the company's overall business.
"Consumers have told us the vegetarian lifestyle is too hard, but they're looking for ways to introduce more vegetables into their diet," Eric Christianson, Perdue's chief marketing officer, said in an interview on Friday.
The new product could also help parents trick finicky children into eating healthier. They are "like Trojan horses made of vegetables making it onto kids' plates and into their stomachs," Christianson said.
There has been a growing appetite for plant-based foods from both consumers and investors, with shares of vegan burger company Beyond Meat more than tripling since the company went public on May 2. Beyond Meat shares closed at US$151.48 on Friday, taking the market value of the California upstart that has yet to make a profit to more than US$8.5 billion.
Analysts expect the plant-based meat market to be worth US$100 billion by 2035 as consumers seek to reduce meat consumption amid growing concerns over health risks and environmental hazards of industrial animal farming.
Perdue Foods, part of family-owned Perdue Farms, is not the only meat processor vying for health-conscious consumers as firms compete for precious supermarket real estate space.
U.S. meat processing giant Tyson Foods on Thursday announced it will begin selling mixed-protein products, including sausages and meatballs that combine chicken with plants including chickpeas, black beans and quinoa.
Canadian packaged meat producer Maple Leaf Foods Inc's vegan "ground beef" and burger patties, sold under its LightLife brand, will be on U.S. store shelves this summer.
Nestle, the world's biggest packaged foods group, is aiming to sell a pea-based veggie patty called Awesome Burger under its U.S. plant-based Sweet Earth brand in the fall.
"This is just the first wave and over time we expect our products to show up in a lot of different grocery store aisles," Christianson said.
Perdue is also developing ground meat products mixed with vegetables and experimenting with different plant proteins. The company was still evaluating whether to offer wholly plant-based products down the line, Christianson said.
Perdue's frozen products will ship to restaurants this summer and be available at retailers by September. Christianson declined to provide details on partnerships, but said the nuggets would appear on kids' menus at fast food chains and at school lunch programs.
Some analysts have questioned the strategy of mixing meat with vegetables to attract health-conscious consumers.
"We're less confident in blended meat/plant products as we believe in the early stages of alternative meat, consumers want to make a simple binary decision between eating meat or not," analysts at Mizuho Securities USA said in a note.
(Reporting by Tina Bellon in New York; Editing by Phil Berlowitz and Bill Berkrot)