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Hamburgers cook on a grill in the kitchen of an h3 Hamburger Co. restaurant in Lisbon, Portugal. Image: Mario Proenca/Bloomberg via Getty Images

What’s cooking? The future of meat

Hailed as a major disruptor to today’s livestock industry, companies producing innovative meat analogues are blurring the line between disruption and business-as-usual, writes Laura Wellesley.

Research Fellow, Energy, Environment and Resources

12 Jun 2017  •  15 min read

Research Fellow, Energy, Environment and Resources

In laboratories around the world, biochemists and tissue engineers are producing a new generation of meat alternatives in the form of plant-based or cultured products that not only resemble meat but actually imitate its look, feel, taste and smell.

For early-stage products with a niche consumer base, these products have been generating serious media buzz ever since the first public tasting of the in vitro burger in London in 2013. It helps that Silicon Valley royalty (Bill Gates, Sergey Brin, Biz Stone and Evan Williams) are backers of these exciting start-ups.  The most advanced of these disruptors – Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat in the plant-based camp, Memphis Meats and Mosa Meats on the side of cultured meat – are ramping up fast.

Today, you can buy a Beyond Burger in Safeways stores in Northern California or in Whole Foods across the US. The Impossible Burger debuted in high-end restaurants such as Momofuku Nishi in New York and Jardinière in San Francisco and in multi-outlet burger joints such as Umami Burger. At the Crossroads in San Francisco, it features on the menu alongside an oven-roasted pig’s head. At BareBurger in New York, the Impossible Burger can be substituted for the usual patty in whichever burger creation you choose from the menu – at no extra cost. Memphis Meat and Mosa Meat say their products will be on sale at a competitive price by 2021. SuperMeat, a cultured meat start-up in Israel, is also hoping to follow suit.

A departure from precedent

These products differ in an important way from traditional meat alternatives. Plant-based protein offerings – like those offered in Buddhist restaurants across Asia – have sought to encourage the substitution of the burgers, steaks, meatballs, bacon and chicken wings for healthier, more sustainable alternatives. This new generation of plant-based ‘meat’ and cultured meat instead aims to create these same foods differently so that our eating habits need not change at all.

Both plant-based ‘meat’ and cultured meat represent radical departures from meat production as we know it. Plant-based ‘meat’ contains no animal cells. Instead, plant cells are used to replicate the sinuous texture of meat, with a pink hue that sizzles brown when cooked as well as the juices and aromas integral to the sensation of meat-eating. In contrast, cultured meat is living tissue. Starter cells (bovine stem cells, for example) are grown in a culture medium around a ‘scaffold’ to allow the meat to take form.

These innovations – to mimic the very produce they hope to replace – reflect key learnings from the sphere of behaviour change and from past experience of encouraging more sustainable consumption patterns.

The first is that campaigns to raise consumer awareness on the environmental footprint of products have enjoyed limited success. This is in part because our food choices are the result of a complex interplay of factors, spanning deep-seated social norms and cultural values to marketing cues and store layouts.1 Also, other considerations – such as habit, convenience, social norms, health concerns, price promotions, product placement and, shop design – often come into play in the supermarket, restaurant or at the fridge door. 

The second is that factors with an immediate impact on individuals – the taste of a given product, its price on that day, for example – often carry greater weight than more abstracted concerns such as animal welfare or environmental sustainability.2 The upshot is that convenience and appeal at the point of purchase often win out over the best of intentions to shop ‘well’.

The third is that changing the kind of meat we eat has greater potential for success, at least for now, than cutting the amount of meat we eat. In countries where meat consumption has reached unhealthy and unsustainable levels – principally in industrialized economies such as China and Brazil – meat is valued highly, which means that messages demonizing meat or stigmatizing its consumption are likely to be met with resistance.3 The message of ‘eat less’ or ‘buy less’ also sits at odds with the dominant narratives of consumerism, economic prosperity and material aspirations in many emerging nations. The assumption is that an approach that minimizes the need for behavioural shifts may yield more widespread and long-lasting change.4 Given these lessons, it makes sense these companies have distanced themselves from the value-laden rhetoric of individual health, environmental sustainability and animal welfare.

World’s first beef burger created from stem cells harvested from a living cow. Image: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Take the Impossible Burger, for example. It is presented as first a tasty burger, and second a more sustainable alternative to a conventional burger. Its tagline – ‘For the Love of Meat’ – aligns with the meat industry, not the meat alternatives. The Impossible Burger site steers a careful path around the issues of sustainability and health. It notes the relative resource intensity of conventional meat production, and emphasizes the 'all-natural' ingredients of the Impossible Burger. The words 'sustainable' and 'healthy' are absent in the description of their burgers.

Beyond Meat adopts the marketing style of traditional barbecue meat, with Western-style fonts and prominent images of sizzling burgers on a grill. That it is 100 per cent vegan, contains no GMOs, soy or gluten, and still has a high protein content is also central to their advertising.

Memphis Meats, the leader in producing cultured meat, takes a similar approach. Concerns about environmental destruction, poor health and animal welfare are front and centre of their marketing blurb, but their stated aim is to ‘change the way meat gets to your plate’. The framing is not one of being ‘alternative’ in any way; it is the sameness that is emphasized and reiterated. What’s more, Memphis Meats argue their most important selling point is that their meat is delicious.

When is meat no longer meat?

Far from advocating their products as a more sensible, virtuous choice, these companies are offering their goods as tasty indulgences, Instagram-worthy plates, and everyday supermarket fare. In targeting award-winning restaurants, regular burger joints and national retail chains, these companies are positioning themselves within the realms of current meat consumption habits. 

This approach brings its own challenges, not least the potential for strong and organized resistance from the conventional meat industry. The opposition faced by plant-based dairy and egg alternatives in the US is an indication of the possible obstacles that lie ahead for the likes of Impossible Foods and Memphis Meats.

In January of this year, dairy farmers in the US launched an attack, supported by members of Congress, against the use of the term ‘milk’ to market dairy alternatives.5 The group has proposed amendments to FDA rules that would allow ‘milk’ to be applied only to products originating from ‘hooved animals’.6 This comes after Unilever filed a lawsuit against Hampton Creek in 2014 - one which it has subsequently dropped - for its use of the word ‘mayonnaise’ to market the a new egg-free alternative; a move that Unilever claimed amounted to false advertising.

Hampton Creek’s egg free mayonnaise provoked controversy when first introduced in 2014. Image: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The two cases raise interesting questions for meat analogues. Can ‘meat’ be defined as animal-derived tissue, or must that tissue be taken from a whole, deceased animal? Are terms such as ‘drumstick’, ‘chipolata’ and ‘steak’ reserved for meat-based products, or is their use acceptable for plant-based products that look, feel and taste like their animal-derived alternatives? How clearly must these companies label their products as cultured meat or plant-based ‘meat’ to avoid misleading consumers? Would these same rules apply in the case of mass-produced, pre-prepared meals such as those found in hospital canteens, aeroplanes or multinational fast-food joints?

Industry transition is already underway

Despite the inevitable points of contention that will need to be ironed out as meat analogue production is scaled up, there are indications that major players in the meat and dairy industries are repositioning themselves in order to capture the fast evolving market in alternatives.

Having dropped its case against Hampton Creek, Unilever is now marketing its own egg-free line of Hellmann’s mayo, albeit labelled not as ‘mayo’ but as ‘carefully crafted dressing and sandwich spread’.7  In the summer of 2016, Danone – the world’s biggest dairy company – acquired WhiteWave Foods, a producer of soy milk.8 And earlier this year, Dean Foods – a major US dairy company – agreed an investment and distribution deal with Good Karma Foods, a producer of flaxseed-based dairy alternatives.9

Similarly in October 2016, Tyson Foods – the world’s second largest chicken, beef and pork business (after JBS) – announced its purchase of a 5 per cent stake in Beyond Meat, a plant-based meat start-up already selling in supermarkets in the US.10 This move was due in part to shareholder demand to address the risks to its business from continued sales of animal protein.11 Ex-CEO of McDonald’s, Don Thompson, and CEO and co-founder of Honest Tea, Seth Goldman, are also on the board of directors at Beyond Meat.12

Such moves will become more common, particularly in light of mounting pressure from major investors and retailers to ‘shake up’ the protein system. The FAIRR Initiative, an investor network led by Chief Investment Officer at Coller Capital, Jeremy Coller, has made meat- and dairy-rich diets and supply chains a key target of their work.13 Working with ShareAction, a non-governmental organization that promotes responsible investment, FAIRR has already cultivated a 40-strong coalition of institutional investors, worth a collective $1.25 trillion, to encourage 16 multinational food companies to diversify their supply chains and portfolios and reduce their overall stake in animal protein.

A positive development?

Notwithstanding these fast developments, important questions remain. Unless using clean energy, for example, the energy intensity of industrialized in vitro meat production will raise further climate and sustainability concerns.14

Price also matters. Factory farming has enabled the production and sale of vast quantities of cheap meat. Even though the price of plant-based and cultured meat production has plummeted since their first prototypes, further price drops will be needed if meat analogues are to compete at scale.15

Also important is the regulatory response to this emerging industry. Overly restrictive approaches on product naming and labelling could stifle innovation: but lack of regulation could perpetuate an uncertain investment environment. In an industry as heavily concentrated as meat production, clear and forward-looking regulation will be needed, both to create a level playing field for companies developing novel alternatives and to encourage further investment in a rapidly evolving space.

Meat analogues present an exciting opportunity to crack open one of the biggest challenges we face in the transition to a sustainable resource economy. The ‘wicked’ problem of land use cannot be solved without a shift away from our current land-intensive system of livestock production. A reduction in land use of up to 99 per cent and a drop of up to 96 per cent in water use  would go a considerable way to enabling the large-scale land-based carbon sequestration needed to avoid dangerous levels of climate change.16

But, if this opportunity is to be harnessed, fast thinking is required to make at-scale production truly sustainable, to create a regulatory environment that facilitates innovation, and to encourage major players in the meat business to follow the likes of Unilever and Danone in adopting new approaches to producing the foods we love.