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Bratwurst-loving Germans are embracing trend for healthier, ethical veggie ‘meats’

May 18, 2021, 7:48 PM UTC

Is Germany falling out of love with the bratwurst? 

Be it the ubiquitous Currywurst, the traditional Frankfurter, or Bavaria’s boiled Weißwurst, new findings suggest the country’s signature contribution to world cuisine is under threat. 

The global trend toward healthier, more sustainable foods means meat substitutes made from tofu, seitan, or legumes are going mainstream—even in Germany.

According to figures from the country’s federal statistics office released on Friday, domestic food producers ramped up their supply of vegetarian and vegan meat substitutes 39% to 83.7 million kilograms (92,300 tons) last year. That’s worth €374.9 million ($455 million) in total. By comparison, the value of conventional meat production in Germany, while 100 times greater, declined by nearly 4%. The figures account only for domestic production and do not include imports or exports.

Since data on alternative, plant-based meats has been collected only from 2019, this was the first time the statistics office could make an annual comparison—in itself an indicator of a growing trend. 

Volkswagen is just one recent example of the change. The German carmaker is famous for producing its own Currywurst for its domestic workforce, but the brand’s 14,000-strong staff in Hanover have had the option of dining meat-free since February.

“We want to show that vegetarian food can always be an alternative to eating meat,” Thomas Kleiner, who manages the kitchen at VW’s Nordwind restaurant, told Fortune in an emailed statement.

Popular sausage brand Rügenwalder Mühle now generates roughly as much annual revenue from its vegetarian and vegan products as from its traditional business.

“We’re profiting from the corona effect. In the pandemic, people want to be more conscious about their diet,” chief executive Michael Hähnel told German daily Handelsblatt last month.

Politicians have repeatedly waded into the fierce social debate over meat consumption. Over in the U.S., Republicans recently pushed the false narrative that President Joe Biden wanted to clamp down on burgers as part of his plans to combat climate change.

In Germany, a similar debate kicked off weeks ahead of the general election back in 2013, when the Greens campaigned for a Veggie Day. The center-left party led by Annalena Baerbock is currently polling neck and neck with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives and is widely expected to be part of the next coalition government after elections in late September. It remains to be seen what sustainable food policies the party might pursue if it finds election success.

Slaughterhouse scandals

The meat industry in Germany can partly be blamed for the decline in consumption, as it has experienced its fair share of bad publicity. Many still remember the so-called Gammelfleisch scandal in 2005, when rancid or rotten meat was sold under false pretenses to restaurateurs and mixed into popular fast-food dishes like Turkish kebabs. 

Ten years later, the World Health Organization found that processed meats such as bratwursts contributed to the risk of colorectal cancer, and that red meat was probably carcinogenic. The findings were widely reported in mainstream publications such as the tabloid Bild.

More recently, the slaughterhouses at one of Germany’s largest meatpackers served as a breeding ground for COVID-19, infecting hundreds of employees—much like a similar case in the U.S. involving Smithfield Foods. 

Whether propelled by concerns over cardiovascular diseases, climate change, or the ethical treatment of livestock, demand for meat substitutes has been growing. German alternative-food startups such as Vly and Veganz have risen to meet that growth. 

According to Germany’s statistics office, the average household has drastically cut down on meat consumption. In 1978, the average monthly consumption of fresh cuts of beef, poultry, and lamb stood at roughly 6.7 kg. Forty years later, the average has dropped to just 2.3 kg.

Boston Consulting Group believes Europe and North America could see peak meat consumption in 2035. By that point, the alternative protein market is forecast to reach $290 billion, saving carbon emissions equal to the current annual output of Japan, the world’s third-largest economy. 

The trend away from producing meat toward protein substitutes like yellow peas has also influenced recent market developments. In Germany, prices for plant-based products have climbed steadily since the start of this year, while those for animal-based products continue to fall

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