Friday, July 27, 2012

The white other meat...

This struck me as an idea that might reshape protein markets...along with sky-high feed costs. 
Brown got into fake meat after working in the clean-energy business. He says he loves the taste of meat, but his childhood on a family farm convinced him to refrain from killing animals*, and he’s been vegan for many years. In 2009, he met Fu-Hung Hsieh and Harold Huff, food scientists at the University of Missouri who’d been working to create a meat substitute for more than a decade. The three formed a company, and they’ve been working to build the perfect fake meat ever since.
The process has moved along in fits and starts. “It’s a combination lock,” Brown says. “There are three different parameters we’re working with—heat, cooling, and pressure.” To make the meat, the firm starts with a powdered protein—for the chicken strips, they’re using soy; for the beef, they’ll use a protein from a kind of pea—that they form into a liquid paste. The paste is heated, then it’s extruded through a machine that resembles a pasta press, and then cooled. “It was a process of trial and error to get all of those to align exactly right in the right sequence,” Brown says. “But if you do—if you get the heating and cooling sequence right, and you apply exactly the right pressure through the extrusion—you get the proteins to align in a way that makes them almost indistinguishable from animal proteins.”
Brown says that other hurdles remain, and Beyond Meat is constantly working to refine its methods. Making the perfect fake beef is harder than making chicken, because people expect real beef to look a bit red, from blood. Beyond Meat can add a red hue using beet juice or other natural colorants, but Brown doesn’t know yet if people will consider it strange to have bloody-looking fake meat. This sounds like a trivial factor, but one study has shown that a meat substitute’s appearance is the most important factor to consumers—even before you taste it, you decide whether fake meat is acceptable based on how it looks.
Over time, Brown believes, the firm will get all these little details just right. He’s also confident that society will accept his innovations just as it has adapted to tech revolutions of the past. “Once, we had the horse-drawn carriage, and then we had the horse-less carriage, and then we had the automobile,” he says. “I’m firmly convinced we’re going to go from beef and chicken products that are animal in origin to those that are made with plants—and at some point in the future you’ll walk down the aisle of the supermarket and ask for beef and chicken, and like the automobile has no relationship to the horse, what you get will have nothing to do with animals.” [More]
More reviews here, here, here.

Commercial ag has been justifiably dismissive of the faux meat market threat, yet it is hard not to sense a number of things to cause rethinking.

First, the animal cruelty cause doesn't seem to be going away. We're just a Walmart away from junking gestation crates everywhere - without any loathsome government regs to blame.

Second, as shown above the meat imposters are getting better, and given our preference for prepared (i.e. seasoned and cooked) food, the differences apparent raw begin to become meaningless. All they need is some economies of scale to undercut real meat, and I think a significant market share could switch, at least in categories like frozen dinners.

Finally, as pork and beef follow chicken into near total concentration due to economic pressure from feed costs, public connections to producers will likely unravel. CAFO's just look like CAFO's. And they don't match what the public wants farms to look like. Or what we peddle in the PR marketplace.

*But what really struck me was the highlighted line above. I thought putting kids to work (on ROPS-less tractors, for example) was how you made them stalwart champions of producing food the way Grandpa did.

Perhaps not always.

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