As the COVID-19 pandemic stirs fear about food supply chains, plant-based meat substitutes are having their day in the sun. 

Products that use soy or peas to replicate the taste and texture of meat are seeing a surge in sales as Canadians snap up new protein sources amid concerns that meat selection will become strained due to virus outbreaks at major processing facilities. 

Data from analytics firm Nielsen shows sales of tofu and meat alternatives in Canada rose 52 per cent year-over-year from the beginning of March to the week of April 18. That sales growth outpaced the 30 per cent gain for fresh meat products during the same period.

Part of that is due to Canadians eating slightly less meat, diet trends, and consumers just looking to eat something different for a change, said Carman Allison, vice president of consumer insights for Nielsen.

"Now that COVID-19 has drastically changed the way consumers are shopping, and their ability to eat out, they are being forced to cook at home more, and meal-making fatigue could be contributing to consumers willingness to try new products," said Allison in an email. 

While plant-based meat substitutes still represent a fraction of total spending on meat in Canada - Nielsen estimates that meat outsells alternatives by nearly 27 to 1 - the COVID-19 pandemic could be boosting the products’ popularity among consumers. 

Maple Leaf Foods Inc. said Wednesday its first-quarter sales of plant-based protein surged 26 per cent to $46.3 million, and CEO Michael McCain indicated the momentum hasn’t abated.

"We're seeing tremendous growth going into the second quarter than in the first [quarter] in our plant-based business," McCain said during a conference call on Wednesday. 

Next week investors will gain further insight into how quickly consumers are flocking to meat alternatives when industry leader Beyond Meat Inc. reports its first-quarter results Tuesday. Analysts expect the company to report US$87 million in revenue and a net loss of US$3.7 million for the quarter. 

Canadian farmers could stand to benefit as consumer appetites grow for these new meat alternatives. While demand for Canadian-grown pulses - peas and lentils - has been impacted by trade restrictions in India and China, domestic processing capacity is increasing, according to Pulse Canada. 

Julianne Curran, vice-president of market innovation at Pulse Canada, said there are about 300,000 tonnes of processing capacity in Canada and new facilities are expected to come online later this year, including a plant in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba built by Roquette Freres SA, which could support an additional 500,000 acres of pea and lentil production for Canadian farmers, she added. 

"We don’t yet know the impacts of COVID-19 on consumer diets, but reports suggest that both purchases of shelf-stable pulses as well as meat alternatives have increased," Curran told BNN Bloomberg in an email. "There are changes happening across all product categories, some will be short-term and others may last longer."

However, Simon Somogyi, a University of Guelph professor who focuses on the food industry, told BNN Bloomberg that it may be premature to think people will permanently gravitate to plant-based meat alternatives after the pandemic. 

"If we're going to have shortages in meat, it's going to be short, rather than long-term," Somogyi said. "Plant-based meat is still a niche product and focuses on the 'flexitarian' consumer, which is just about 10 per cent to 20 per cent of Canadians."