The news for the American meat industry over the last month has not been good. Slaughterhouses closed as the coronavirus sickened and killed workers. Even after President Trump declared meat processing plants “critical infrastructure,” hundreds of Wendy’s restaurants ran out of hamburgers. As meat-processing plants have shut down, farmers have had to kill hundreds of thousands of pigs.
That hasn’t slowed demand for meat. Sales from April 12 to May 9 were 28 percent higher than in the four weeks ending Jan. 18, before the first reported case of coronavirus in the United States, according to data from Nielsen.
But the meat industry’s troubles may have provided a boost for plant-based meat substitutes, which had a jump of 35 percent in sales during the same period. (The increase just for uncooked products was more dramatic: 53 percent for the vegan products versus 34 percent for meat.)
Those companies’ new generation of plant-based alternatives — developed in laboratories, with long lists of unfamiliar ingredients — had been slowly catching on with consumers. But some say that reports of illness among meat-processing workers have made them even more curious.
Before the pandemic, William Thomas, 19, usually bought ground beef and chicken on his weekly shopping trip near his home in Brookline, N.H. Since April, he has been buying plant-based meat instead. “I’d always been trying to block out a lot of what was going on behind the scenes of the meat industry, but I can’t ignore it forever,” he said.
Mr. Thomas, who is currently unemployed, is now eating a mostly vegetarian diet for the first time in his life.
Some Americans were already looking to plant-based diets as a way to combat climate change.
“I think it uses much less water to grow a bunch of peas than it does to grow a cow,” said Faizal Karmali, 45, an independent philanthropy consultant who lives in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn.
Mr. Karmali and his fiancée have been trying since December to eat a more plant-based diet. At the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, he had a craving for meat. But then, he noticed higher meat prices and read reports of worker deaths.
“I just figured that the dynamics there were enough of a nudge not to bother creating more demand” for meat, he said.
Impossible Foods’ plant in Oakland, Calif., has not yet had any coronavirus cases, said the chief executive, Pat Brown. No cases have been reported at the North Carolina factory of Atlantic Natural Foods, which makes the Loma Linda line of plant-based foods, said Doug Hines, the company’s founder.