K-State Cattlemen’s Day considers disruptive alternative ‘meats’

There’s been a lot of hype recently about plant-sourced and laboratory-produced alternative “meat” coming onto the marketplace, but just how disruptive might they be to the $90 billion global meat market? Brad Morgan, senior director of Protein at Performance Food Group walked producers through this topic at the 2019 Cattlemen’s Day, March 1, on the Kansas State University campus.

First, it’s important to understand that there are several different “meat-like products” that are on the market and there are several different production methods for them, Morgan explained. For example, there’s the “Impossible Burger” that uses extracted heme from plants (the component of hemoglobin found in blood in animals). The extracted heme is then fermented and used in the production of the vegetable-based “meat.” There’s also products on the market that use animal cell cultures that are multiplied and create a “lab-cultured” product.

Defining these products and which can and cannot be marketed as “meat” will be critical for producers, Morgan warned. Consider, he said, the example of the milk producers facing almonds, soy and other “juices” masked as plant “milks.” It’s better to get ahead of this, instead of trying to catch up with the marketplace.

Next, what’s concerning many cattlemen is the recent rise in funding for many of these start-up companies, and the traditional companies that have bought into some of them.

“Montiff Ingredients just raised $90 million in startup money,” Morgan said. This company wants to use biotechnology and fermentation for vegetable-based yogurts.

“These companies are legitimate and sound at this point,” he added. Bill Gates has invested a large amount of money into the alternative meat arena. Tyson and Cargill are just two major companies that have also invested in alternative meat development.

“They want to know what is said in that space,” Morgan said of these decisions. “It’s better to have a seat at the table. It’s not a profit center. But it’s smart to know what’s being said, rather than reading about what’s being said.”

That means cattlemen should also pay attention to this new competition and what they are saying to consumers in their marketing messages.

The Good Food Institute is one example of an organization that uses scare tactics to push consumers toward its product versus beef. Morgan explained GFI often positions its product as a better choice based on topics such as: animal welfare; reduced land use; no antibiotics used; reduced greenhouse gas emissions and lower carbon footprints; and more.

Now, cattlemen have some hope. First these products have a large regulatory hurdle. There’s a fight right now to decide if the U.S. Department of Agriculture will regulate these products like they do processing plants, or if these will fall under the Food and Drug Administration jurisdiction.

“They want to be called meat, but they don’t want to be inspected by USDA inspectors like we are,” Morgan said. “They want the FDA to regulate them and not the USDA-FSIS because that’s less rigorous than meat inspections.” That also calls into question food safety of these alternatives, Morgan added.

Next, it’s important to understand that this is just the next generation of ingredient optimization in plant and fungus-derived foods, Morgan explained. He reminded cattlemen that for many years soy has been incorporated into some commercial hamburger patties. And therefore these alternatives are usually found in the form of patties, crumbles or strips. There have been news reports of a company using 3-D printing technology to “print” a “steak” but making that widely commercially available is a ways off. And there are questions of palatability of the product.

“In my opinion, I don’t think they’ll ever get that rib eye steak,” Morgan said. And while there’s a certain consumer who will choose these items off the steakhouse menu, many won’t.

“One in 10 consumers said they would eat it,” Morgan said. But these products cost much more than meat products found in grocery cases, and that can also cause consumers to pause.

“We have to work on our perception of our product, and tell people what we do and how we contribute to working on sustainability and the environment,” Morgan challenged cattlemen.

K-State Agricultural Economist Glynn Tonsor told cattlemen that this alternative protein base brings up a lot more questions for economists.

Overall, cattlemen need to recognize beef demand’s critical and dynamic role in the protein draw, Tonsor said. Economists need to research actual demand drivers so that we can understand those who are choosing these protein sources.

First, the world collectively wants more protein in any form, Tonsor reminded them. With more people we have more economic growth, and that increases beef demand as well as other proteins like poultry and pork.

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“New investors see this as an opportunity to develop new protein sources,” Tonsor said. “This all wouldn’t occur if we didn’t want protein in the world.” That demand means competition is here to stay from these alternative proteins much like there’s competition from organic, conventional, antibiotic-free and other such production labels, Tonsor advised.

Second, Tonsor said there needs to be much more economic research into actual purchasing data, analysis of consumer spending and behaviors, consumer demographics, latent perceptions under their purchasing decisions, one-time purchasers versus repeat buyers, and even how price-sensitive these products are in the grocery cart.

“We don’t know how much of a substitution effect these are on the menu,” Tonsor reminded cattlemen. “Currently vegans or vegetarians are 3 to 6 percent of the U.S. population. So if only part of the U.S. is interested in these products, what is that effect? It’s not the same as flexitarians, or those who eat less meat.

On the flip side, there’s also a possibility that the amount of ingredients and the complex methods used to create these proteins could drive consumers to “real beef” as a simpler menu item, Tonsor said. And that provides cattlemen with an opportunity to show consumers how science has advanced cattle production in the past 60 years and how cattlemen have changed with those advancements.

“As a society we have moved away from an emphasis on food availability versus the food type,” Tonsor said. “We as a society can afford it. And those in a position to choose these products can afford to ask questions.”

In the end, the choice at the supermarket is likely going to come down to the consumer considering price, taste experience and their own personal values around food production. And that’s what cattlemen need to recognize and respond to in this new challenge, Tonsor said.

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or [email protected].