A price analysis carried out by supermarket researcher Questionmark and commissioned by food awareness organisation ProVeg Netherlands has found that the price gap between meat and meat substitutes has significantly narrowed.
The survey represents the first time that price differences between animal-based products and their plant-based counterparts have been systematically mapped out in Dutch supermarkets.
Questionmark analyzed the prices of animal-based and plant-based products at leading Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn over the past five years. This clearly showed a decrease in the price difference.
In 2019, vegetarian chicken pieces were still 75 cents (€) more expensive (per 100 grams) than animal-based chicken pieces. In 2022, they are only 13 cents more expensive. The price difference in minced meat fell from 24 cents to 6 cents in the same period. The price difference for soy milk has completely vanished in recent years.
Major differences between six largest supermarkets
In addition to Albert Heijn, the study also examined five other large Dutch supermarkets: Jumbo, Lidl, Aldi, Dirk and Plus. There, Questionmark examined a wide range of plant-based substitutes for animal-based products: from plant-based meat and fish, to charcuterie, cheese and other dairy substitutes. The ‘lowest price gap’ has been calculated for 32 different product types: the price difference per 100 grams between the cheapest plant-based version and the cheapest animal-based version. In addition, the cheapest plant-based version was compared with the most expensive animal-based version, to see whether the plant-based product at least fell within the price range of animal-based variants.
Of the supermarkets surveyed, Aldi had the highest share of products in the ‘more expensive’ category at 67%, followed by Dirk (65%), Lidl (63%) and Plus (50%). At Jumbo (30%) and Albert Heijn (34%) this percentage is lower and a large majority of the products are cheaper or affordable. However, the highest percentage of cheaper products could also be found at Lidl (31%) and Aldi (33%). Due to the smaller range, products at these supermarkets more often fell into the ‘cheaper’ or ‘more expensive’ category and not in the intermediate category ‘affordable’.
Plant-based shopping not more expensive
Despite the sometimes still large price differences, a customer who opts for plant-based alternatives will not necessarily pay more.
The researchers filled an imaginary shopping basket with the cheapest variant of the 12 most common plant-based products that are for sale in (almost) all supermarkets: veggie balls and burgers, vegetarian minced meat, schnitzels, shawarma, chicken pieces, soy milk, vegan cheese, quark, yogurt, ice cream and plant-based margarine. Such a shopping basket turned out to be a little or no more expensive than a basket filled with the cheapest animal-based variants. The biggest price difference, at Jumbo, was only 75 cents per basket. At PLUS and Lidl, the plant-based basket turned out to be 58 and 24 cents respectively cheaper than the animal-based basket. These are marginal differences on the total prices of the baskets of around €25.
Pablo Moleman, spokesperson for ProVeg Netherlands, said: “These results radically break with the established image that plant-based alternatives are by definition more expensive. Previous research has already shown that a largely plant-based diet consisting mainly of fresh plant-based foods, grains and legumes is considerably cheaper than an average Western diet. But meat and dairy substitutes still have a reputation for being very expensive. In some cases it is, but in others it is not. The Questionmark research shows that these differences more or less cancel each other out, which means that as a plant-based consumer it is not more expensive.”
An earlier poll by ProVeg already showed that the perception that substitutes are expensive forms a significant barrier for people to switch to a more plant-based diet. 55% of the respondents indicated that the too high price is a reason for them not to choose plant-based more often. However, this new research indicates that this perception is not entirely correct.
Albert Heijn and Jumbo are taking steps towards equal prices
The study argues for an active policy by supermarkets to bring prices even closer together. Reference is made to two British supermarkets, Tesco and COOP UK, which introduced such policies last year. COOP UK even has a ‘price parity policy’, whereby the price of all plant-based private label products is kept exactly the same as that of the animal-based variants. For example, it should be made easier for consumers to make an environmentally conscious choice. The Chinese online supermarket Ochama also implemented such a policy in its Dutch branches earlier this month.
Albert Heijn informed ProVeg shortly before the publication of the research that it had also adjusted the prices for a number of plant products to make them equal to or cheaper than the animal-based variant. The results of this could no longer be processed in the report. Jumbo also indicated in a response that it would equalize the prices for part of their vegetarian range. Moleman said: “Albert Heijn and Jumbo are taking the first steps towards a fair pricing policy, making it easier for customers to make conscious choices. We hope that other supermarkets will follow this good example.”
Profit margins for plant-based products are many times higher than for animal-based products
There certainly seems to be room to bring prices closer together. The research indicates that supermarkets generally have very unequal margins. Meat products are sold at margins of around 8% and in some cases even below cost. On the other hand, plant-based products have big profit margins, ranging from 35% to 50%. According to ProVeg, such a margin policy gives the consumer the wrong incentives. The organization therefore calls on the supermarkets to adjust their margin policy. Moleman said: “If supermarkets turned around and levy a 50% margin on meat, the world would look very different. We also know from consumer research that a majority of the Dutch people support a policy whereby supermarkets increase the price of meat or lower the price of plant-based products. Customers see a real responsibility for the sector in this.”
The report also calls on supermarkets to offer plant-based products more often and to sell them in larger discount packaging. The study only compared products with a comparable pack size. But there is no plant-based alternative for kilo packs of minced meat or milk packs of 2 litres.
Effects of the Ukraine war on price differences still unclear
The data collection for the study largely took place in January and February 2022. A possible effect of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on food prices is therefore not yet reflected in the study. Both the prices of animal-based products and plant-based substitutes are expected to rise as a result of the conflict. After all, grain and soy are essential raw materials for both animal-based products (as feed) and plant-based (as an ingredient) and are affected by the conflict. However, it is not easy to say whether the prices of animal-based products will rise faster than those of plant-based products, or vice versa.
Moleman said: “Per kilogram of final product, animal-based meat requires much more grain than do plant-based meats, so it can be expected that price pressure will also be highest there. Also, precisely because of the thin margins, animal meat may be more sensitive to price increases than plant based. Supermarkets will probably be forced to pass on at least part of the price increases to the consumer. But often not everything is passed on, or the extra costs are not passed on per product but spread over several products or product groups. Whether the price differences between animal-based and plant-based as a result of the Ukraine war will increase or decrease, therefore, also depends on the choices that supermarkets will make.”
Notes to Editors
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Research by Kieskompas and the Free University, commissioned by ProVeg, into the responsibility that consumers believe companies have in the protein transition and the support for various measures, including steering via price policy.
Previous study showing that plant-based diets are cheaper than animal-based-based diets. However, this did not contain any meat or dairy substitutes.
ProVeg tips for supermarkets to reduce price differences.