Companies invest in meat alternatives

LONDON, Ont. — Major food companies are starting to invest more of their investment budgets into alternative meat products.

“We spent over $900 million in the last couple years and are really investing to get bigger in traditional proteins,” said Sonya Roberts, who lead the growth ventures and strategic pricing for Cargill Proteins in Wichita, Kansas.

Cargill is monitoring seafood consumption and emerging businesses are offering plant-based proteins, combinations, cultured meats and new products such as those using insects.

The vegetarian demographic has not changed in 20 years and makes up about five percent of the American market.

“The products you are looking at are not geared toward vegetarians. They are geared toward omnivores. They are people who are eating animal protein and plant-based protein,” she said at the Canadian beef industry conference held in London from Aug. 14-17.

Meat alternatives like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger are offered at food service outlets and people are trying them.

“If you are a real meat eater, you can taste the difference,” she said.

When it comes to cultured meat produced from animal cells, greater changes could be coming, if manufacturers can get prices down to the same as traditional meat.

Memphis Meats, based in San Francisco, is developing cultured products like ground beef and chicken, which is grown by harvesting cells from living animals and multiplying them in a laboratory.

The company was launched in 2015. In 2017, it received funding from Cargill, Bill Gates Foundation and Richard Branson. Tyson invested in early 2018.

“It still is a long way to go. The cost of producing these is very expensive at this point. They haven’t mass produced them at this point,” Roberts said.

The cost of production is not publicly known. Originally, it cost $300,000 per pound to produce but the company is not sharing its current costs.

When Cargill has talked to consumers, they have said they are not willing to pay more for it.

There is an ongoing debate in the United States about how should these new products be governed and how they should be labelled.

U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines say cultured products qualify as meat products but many people argue they must be labelled clearly and should not be called “fake or clean” meat.

Cargill has found the willingness to try something different is considerably higher outside North America, where beef and chicken rule. They have also noticed people will try new food alternatives but they do not know if these are repeat customers or if they would be willing to cook it at home.

However, to feed a growing population with better incomes, more protein products are going to be needed in the future, she said. For many in the world, beef is a prestige item only the very wealthy can afford.

“If we are going to feed people and they want protein, we have to work together,” Roberts said.

Benjamin Bohrer, an assistant professor in animal science at the University of Guelph, said the new products should be accepted by the industry.

“It makes a lot of traditional meat producers and meat scientists a little bit anxious but I think…for it to really work the protein industry is going to have to accept it,” he said in an interview.

Bohrer in 2017 published review papers on the value of nutrition in meat and plant-based products.

However, to his knowledge less work has been done on cultured meats. Research is needed to uncover their nutrient value, flavour and textures.

“They would be the best resource for these companies to get in with, but no meat scientists that I know of have been sought out to help with any of that product development or research,” he said.

The amino acid composition in cultured products should be the same as traditional meats but the fat would be different because it is synthesized by the animal. This could affect flavour.

Plant-based meat products may have limited amino acids profiles and they may need to be fortified.

“The iron that is found in broccoli or spinach versus the iron that is found in beef is slightly different in terms of its structure and it makes the iron in plant-based sources not nearly as available as the iron that is found in meat sources,” he said.

Another serious concern is the potential for contamination when growing meats in a cell culture. A laboratory is a prime environment for bacteria to grow. Some may be different bacteria that what is typically seen in meat products.

“They need to be really careful in terms of their food safety standards whenever they are culturing the meat in the lab because if they have a food-borne pathogen problem whenever they try to launch the product, it could collapse the entire market before it ever gets going,” he said.

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