Ms. Knutson

Eco-Friendly Practices

Do You Vote for Cows or Cars?

By Bonnie Knutson, Professor, The School of Hospitality Business/MSU

Here is a crazy question for you: Which do you think is the biggest culprit when it comes to generating greenhouse gasses - transportation or livestock? If you are like most people, your answer is going to be transportation. After all, if you turn on any news channel, thumb through any newspaper, or look at any online environmental website, you'll find each is awash with information about government mandates to increase fuel efficiencies, about electric cars, or about the need to increase public transportation. But let's face it, Americans love their cars, especially their big cars. To understand that, all you have to do is look at auto sales statistics. Led by SUVs, 2016 US auto sales set a new record high of 17.55 million units and accounted for 63% of total sales. And Ford's F-Series pickup remained the bestselling vehicle in America, with 820,799 trucks sold. That's the equivalent of 93 trucks sold every hour. Then there are 18-wheelers, motorcycles, mopeds, aircraft, ad infinitum. With numbers like this, it is no wonder that most people would vote for transportation.

While there is no doubt that our love affair with cars, SUVs and pick-up trucks impacts the sustainability of the world's climate, water, and natural resources, it is our love of meat that has an even larger impact. According to a baseline UN study, the livestock sector generates about 18% more CO2 than transportation, and it also is a major factor in land and water consumption. WOW! And we thought our old gas-guzzler was the big culprit.

Now this article is not call for vegetarianism although there is a lot that can be said for eating more fruits, vegetables, and grains. Ask any nutritionist or personal trainer. This article is certainly not an environmentalist decree either, although a lot can be said about saving our planet's natural resources. Nor is it another call for recycling, low energy light bulbs, and conserving water, although those are likewise noble goals. What it is, however, is a piece of the puzzle that can explain the consumers' changing eating behaviors. And it presents both challenges and opportunities for every food operation from the Golden Arches to a luxury hotel. Yours included. You might think of it as feeding the future.

I read somewhere that 2016 was the year of plant-based proteins and that they will continue to be a major food trend in 2017 and beyond. To better appreciate this shift, it will help to understand what is driving it. First, is the explosion technology that allows new plant-based protein to "bleed." The two most notable examples are the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger. These burgers look, taste and smell like beef, but they are made entirely from plants. They sizzle on the grill and even brown and ooze fat when they cook. More importantly, they actually taste like "the real thing." In taste tests, people don't detect the difference between them and burgers made from beef. Already, these burgers have debuted in high end restaurants across the country, where they were enthusiastically received by guests. The owner/chef of Jardiniere in San Francisco, Traci De Jardins, said that demand for the new burger was so great and the line out the door was so long that she had to start issuing tickets to try it. Wouldn't your restaurant manager love to have that problem? Could an Impossible Burger or Beyond Burger have the same effect on your hotel's menu?

Second, major meat producers - such as Tyson Foods - see the writing on the wall when it comes to the future of plant-based protein. They are taking advantage of this opportunity and investing heavily in the development, production, and distribution of new meat alternatives that will stretch beyond "where's the beef." So as the supply increases, consumer availability and acceptance will also increase. Remember the old Diffusion of Innovation Theory that we all learned in school? Well, the adoption of plant based "meat" products is a perfect illustration of the theory that explains how, why, and at what rate new ideas and technology spread from a few early adopters to the general population.

Third, restaurants are jumping on the plant-based protein bandwagon too. Chef Brad Farmerie put the Impossible Burger on the menu at his Michelin-starred Public in New York City as well as his Saxon + Parole, named "Best Bar Family" in the Big Apple. Plant based "meats" were increasingly visible at the 2017 National Restaurant Show is Chicago. Looking at this year's industry hot trends, restaurant consultants, Baum and Whiteman, predicted that vegetables will "extend their domination of the dinner plate, shoving animal protein to the edges…or off the plate."

QSRs and Fast-Casuals are not being left behind either. From Wendy's to Chili's, customers are seeing plant-based alternatives pop up on menus. Taco Bell is even touting its vegetarian certified menu while Burger King promotes meatless Monday. WOW again! This is quite a set of pronouncements for an industry long touting the 16-ounce steak, the full rack of ribs, or the four-decker hamburger. Now, don't get me wrong, beef, pork, chicken, as well as the venerable hot dog and breakfast sausage will probably always be a part of your restaurant's menu. Just maybe not as big of a part in the future. Or as the Wall Street Journal reported, "Anchoring a plate with a massive hunk of animal protein is so last century."

Fourth, grocery store across the nation are expanding their healthy sections to include these new alternatives. As in restaurants, consumer demand is high. At one Whole Foods Market, for example, the Beyond Burger sold out in an hour. Or as National Public Radio (NPR) reported, "Even carnivores are putting more fake meat on their plates."

Finally, governments are getting into the act - both directly and indirectly. Across the globe, governments are issuing guidelines encouraging people to reduce their meat consumption. They are also investing in research that supports plant-based protein. This will be increasingly important as the world's population grows, develops, and demands more and better food. To paraphrase another NPR headline, the juicy meat-free patty is saving the planet one burger at a time.

And, of course, governments are increasing regulatory pressures to address the relationship between food and health, as well as the impact that food production has on sustainability issues. There is growing evidence that obesity and associated medical risks (and costs) are directly related. A recent study across 170 countries found that meats contribute about 13% to obesity. Animal proteins, in general, and red meats, in particular, are under the microscope and taking the brunt of this criticism for their negative impact on health as well as their large carbon footprint.

The issue of sustainability is impacting the beverage side of your restaurant's menu too. That 170 country study also found that sugar contributes another 13% to obesity. So it is no wonder that major soft drink brands are under the same nutritional microscope as meats. This has forced the major players to examine their product mix. For example, PepsiCo Chair and CEO Indra Nooyi announced her company's new sustainability efforts to significantly reduce the calories in their drinks to "counter health concerns...and respond to changing consumer preferences." And make sure you have plenty of bottled water on hand. It is already the second largest beverage category, by volume, in the US, just behind carbonated soft drinks, and it is projected to become the number one beverage in 2017.

The intersection of health, nutrition, and sustainability will become more important and more challenging as populations age and grow. In fact, there is a whole new facet to medical education called Culinary Medicine. Led by The Tulane School of Medicine Teaching Kitchen (the first of its kind in the US), this new field focuses on the unique combination of nutrition and culinary knowledge to help consumers achieve and maintain optimal health. Just think about the unique opportunities such a mindset has for the hotel and restaurant industry.

The upshot is this: Consumers - i.e. your guests - want to live longer healthy vibrant lives. To do this, they are changing their lifestyle habits, including what they eat and drink. So as they change, can the Beyond Burger or the Impossible Burger be far behind what you offer on your menu? I suspect not.

There is an additional and pragmatic benefit for your hotel to embrace more sustainable trends such as plant-based protein. It saves money. Research found that vegetarians save about $750 per year versus those who eat meats. Now, you are not going to save $750 for every guest that eats in your hotel's restaurants, and you will always have the steaks, ribs, and burgers for you purely carnivore guests. But all trends suggest that alternative protein items will continue to grow in popularly and populate restaurant menus across the country. "Plant protein is in." wrote Meatingplace, noting that 70% of meat eaters substitute a non-meat protein at least once a week, and 22% say they are doing it more often today than a year ago." The guests that stay in your resort, in your hotel, or in your bed and breakfast are no different.

So move over, cows, here come the hotel industry.

Bonnie J. Knutson is a professor in The School of Hospitality Business in the Broad College of Business at Michigan State University. She is an authority on emerging lifestyle trends and innovative marketing. Her work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and on PBS and CNN. She has had numerous articles in industry, business, and academic publications. Bonnie is a frequent speaker for executive education as well as business and industry meetings, workshops, and seminars. Dr. Knutson is also editor of the Journal of Hospitality & Leisure Marketing. Ms. Knutson can be contacted at 517-353-9211 or Extended Bio... retains the copyright to the articles published in the Hotel Business Review. Articles cannot be republished without prior written consent by

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