KFC looking into plant-based chicken alternatives

The plant-based protein trend is so powerful, even Kentucky Fried Chicken is taking an interest.

So far, meatless meat has been used by fast-food chains as an alternative to beef or sausage. But if the craze ever extends to plant-based chicken, KFC plans to test out a menu item featuring the protein.

“We don’t see chicken as the big trend right now,” Kevin Hochman, KFC’s US president, told CNN Business. “But we are definitely looking at it in earnest and meeting with the big suppliers of alternative proteins to understand the market and where it’s headed.”

Consumers are increasingly interested in eating plant-based protein for health and environmental reasons, and the market for meat-like protein is growing. By 2023, the US meat-substitute retail market could reach $2.5 billion, compared to $1.4 billion last year, according to the research firm Euromonitor International. Globally, the market could grow from about $18.7 billion in 2018 to $23 billion in 2023, according to Euromonitor International.

If plant-based poultry “gets more and more mainstream and we think it’s right for our customers, we certainly would test it,” Hochman said.

In a statement, a spokesperson said that “KFC US has no plans to test plant-based meat, or meat alternatives at this time,” but added that “we’re aware it’s a growing industry, and we are watching this trend closely to learn as much as we can.”

Burger chains in particular have jumped on the fake meat trend. Burger King is rolling out a meatless version of the Whopper nationwide this year. The meat-free Whopper patties are made by Impossible Foods. Others, like Bareburger, White Castle and Carl’s Jr., also sell meatless burgers.

Burger sellers aren’t the only ones adding plant-based protein to their menus. Mexican fast food-chain Qdoba uses Impossible protein, and Little Caesars recently announced that it is testing an Impossible pizza. In Canada, Tim Horton’s is testing out three breakfast sandwiches with plant-based sausages made by Beyond Meat, Impossible’s competitor.

Investors are seizing on the trend. Beyond Meat, which went public this month, is trading at four times its IPO price of $25 on sustained interest and demand for plant-based protein products.

Although some fast food and quick-service restaurants are moving quickly, others, like KFC, are remaining cautious.

McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook told CNBC on Wednesday that the company is still “exploring” the trend. “We’re trying to understand it better,” he said. “We’re keeping a close eye on it,” noting that he doesn’t think interest in plant-based protein is just a fad.