Changing social dynamics are pressuring food, retail and research companies to offer plant- or cellular-based non-meats. Driving the consumption is a host of beliefs: Cows are bad for the environment, red meat is unhealthy, big food companies cannot be trusted (based on the concerns of animal welfare) and finally, folks are simply curious as to the possible.
Rabobank has offered their prediction of growth of meat alternatives in Canada to reach 200,000 tonnes by 2022. In the same space of time Nestlé is predicting meat alternative sales to reach US$5 billion and Tyson is predicting 20 per cent of meat will actually be non-meat in 25 years. Maple Leaf Foods calls meat alternative sales the fastest-growing category in retail. It would seem that those companies that we knew as meat companies or processors are now categorizing themselves as protein companies and putting money on the continued growth in all non-meat protein categories.
The offerings of plant-based proteins in the meat case are not new, and have had a steady presence for the past 40 years. They include the use of plant proteins such as soy, nuts, legumes, veggies or grains and those new non-plant protein sources such as fungus, bacteria, algae and insects.
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Popular new non-meat burgers, such as those offered by Beyond Meat, are made from peas, coconut oil, potato starch and coloured with beets. Tyson was part of the US$55 million financing for Beyond Meat. Or the Impossible Burger made from wheat, potato protein, coconut oil and heme.
I can’t say I see that the combination of starches and oil is better for you, at least not for my body. It is like linking sausages to health — an unlikely union. But the mention of the fermentation in the above video reminds us that the idea of plant-based protein as an important part of diet is not new to mankind, specifically in Asian cultures. Fermented soy, as an example, has been a staple in diets for generations. Why then are those soy-based cultures so interested in iron- and protein-rich beef while North American culture is so curious about plant-based protein?
I don’t have the answer, but as you click into the video links in this article note that these companies are created by young technical people or feature young athletes. I would wager that some of the draw is that there is a generation out there who wants to be part of or belong to this new food movement.
It is important to understand that non-meat protein is not just a meat replacement, but includes meat grown in a lab from animal cells, likely fetal serum or cells of another origin coaxed into muscle fibre.
Exploration in cellular agriculture has been taking place in labs since the 1960s. In 2013, Musa Meats introduced the first animal-free burger. That meant that the burger was produced without the use of bovine fetal serum. This spurred global interest and the Gates Foundation, Richard Branson and Cargill showed up with US$17 million to fund research in Memphis Meats attracted to their “World without Slaughter” slogan which promotes “clean meat” made in the lab.
Lab-grown meat is usually harvested cells growing in a nutrient serum encouraging them to form muscle-like fibres. And although non serum research has been done and is ongoing, the expense to date keeps it less competitive. Going back to those cells, I was curious what scientists had to say about antimicrobials used in cell cultures and as suspected it is a “routine safeguard” which brings me to the next question: How will this have an impact on our future when we look at antimicrobial resistance in future populations? In the perceived ethical endeavor to save animals from slaughter, what are the unknown consequences to humankind?
Add to this that label confusion has been a curse for the beef industry in the definition of the characteristics of the meat such as “natural” etc., and in the multitude of cuts on offer. If we add to the meat case these names, Memphis Meats, which is cellular, or Beyond Meat, which is plant-based, does the consumer not have the right to know? And, why are they in the meat case? How will they determine what is better based on the limited information they have? And more importantly, how can we help?
Ideally, it may be in our best interest to fully appreciate that our world is not meat immortal and work to ensure the facts are always in front of the consumer, helping them understand that we use less water, feed and energy than ever, that beef is nutritious and that animals play an important part in any ecosystem. The choice, however, is theirs and at very least we can ask that the meat case be just that — the meat case. The products that are grown in a lab or based on plants or starch should be separate and fully transparent in their contents — including the use of antimicrobials in the process.
The investment into technology will grow faster than range grass. Young curious minds will have the courage to try to create or enhance protein offering and are not afraid to talk about it in the transparent space of social media. Investors and protein companies with a different vision are in the game. Beef needs to also be seen as an attractive, ecological and socially conscious option. This will require a redesign of most of what has defined the beef industry, replacing the rough and tumble world of old hierarchies with a creative, collaborative space.