Are alternative proteins really the future of the meat industry?

By Ashley Williams

- Last updated on GMT

Examining the potential of alternative proteins
Plant power is well and truly gathering pace across the international meat industry, as alternative meat giants, including Vivera and Beyond Meat, continue to tap consumers’ desires for plant-based meats. However, as alternative proteins rapidly rise in demand, should traditional livestock producers be worried for their futures?

As November kicks off World Vegan Month, latest research from Mintel has revealed a surge in veganism in the UK meat-free foods market. According to its data, the share of new meat-free products carrying vegan/no animal ingredients has nearly doubled between 2014 and 2017.

The growing profile of vegan foods is reflected by the fact that as many as 56% of UK adults have eaten vegetarian/meat-free foods in the six months to July 2018, a significant increase from the 50% who had eaten these foods in the six months to March 2017.

Estimated to reach £740 million in 2018, sales of meat-free foods (including a growing range of vegan products) have shot up 22% between 2013 and 2018. Growth is set to continue as value sales of the meat-free market are forecast to increase by a further 44% by 2023 to reach £1.1 billion.

Mintel analyst Alyson Parkes noted that there was also a boost in marketing campaigns for veganism with the likes of World Vegan Month and ‘Veganuary’, which takes place at the beginning of the year.

The buzz surrounding ‘Veganuary’ gained momentum in January 2018, with a raft of vegan products launching to capitalise on the month-long meat-free movement,” ​said Parkes. “Vegan claims in the market span own-label products, as well as branded ones, signalling that supermarkets are also keen to capitalise on this interest​.”

There are also significant investments in developing plant-based ingredients in the UK market.

The UK’s Royal Agricultural University, based in Cirencester, Gloucestershire, received a £2m donation this week from the John Oldacre Foundation charity, which supports research into agricultural sciences, to conduct a study into growing soybean as a profitable, low-carbon crop.

One of the researchers, Pedzisai Nemadziba from Zimbabwe, is developing strategies for the UK to grow large-scale soybean crops, which have lower reliance on fertilisers and are becoming a growing part of our diet, particularly for those choosing a plant-based lifestyle.

The majority of the UK’s soya is currently imported and genetically modified, according to the Royal Agricultural University.

Soya is now being incorporated into meat products, including burgers and sausages, to help reduce red meat consumption for environmental and dietary benefits​,” said Dr Nicola Cannon, principal lecturer in agronomy, who is supervising Nemadziba.

Growing soya in the UK would help improve consumer understanding of this crop while reducing food miles and, hopefully in the near future, ​[it could] be a profitable and viable crop for farmers​.”

So how are sales in the traditional meat market affected?

Mintel has revealed that, particularly in the UK market, consumers’ interest in limiting/reducing meat consumption remains strong.

Additional research showed that 34% of meat eaters reduced their meat consumption in 2018, while younger consumers aged 25-34 were the most likely (40%) to have reduced meat consumption in the last year.

The UK’s overarching health trend has underpinned meat reduction behaviours, with consumers increasingly looking for better-for-you food and drink products​,” added Parkes “However, the benefits associated with eating less meat extend far beyond health, also encompassing animal ethics and the environment. The multi-dimensional appeal of the meat-free trend bodes well for its longevity​.”

As well as plant-based meat products, cultured meat businesses have also predicted a downfall for livestock producers.

GlobalMeatNews​ spoke with Mosa Meat’s co-founders Mark Post and Peter Verstrate in Maastricht, the Netherlands, earlier this year to talk about its investment in bringing lab-grown meats to the mainstream market by 2021.

When questioned about the future of traditional livestock producers, Post revealed that cultured meats had the potential to entirely replace livestock meat production across the sector, as consumers became more conscious about the environment and their health.

We’ve heard about the European market, but what about the likes of the US?

Nielsen data, commissioned by the Plant Based Foods Association, has reported that plant-based meat sales in the US have grown by 24% this year in comparison to 6% in 2017. Sales topped US$670m, while animal meat sales grew by just 2%.

However, the American Association of Meat Processors spokeswoman Diana Dietz said meat isn’t going anywhere soon.

“According to the USDA, the average consumer will eat 222.2 pounds of red meat and poultry in 2018, a record high,” ​she explains. “While meat substitutes have gained attention in recent years, industry confidence remains high that meat will maintain its popularity, thanks in part to its nutritional benefits, as well as its role in food culture.

“Consumers are always looking to increase protein into their diets, but they want transparency and higher quality in the foods they are eating. Advances in meat substitutes often misinform consumers about the nutrition and safety of traditional meat products. There is little to no evidence to suggest that meat grown in a lab, or plant-based products, are any safer than traditional meat. All raw agricultural products carry some level of bacterial risk. This is true whether the product is animal or plant-based. From a nutritional standpoint, meat substitutes typically contain more sodium than a traditional meat product.”

Dietz added that the vocal anti –meat campaigners might not be looking at the big picture.

“Many supporters of alternative protein products note a desire to eliminate or drastically reduce animal agriculture, but do not consider the negative economic consequences. Exports are responsible for 20% of US farm income. The meat industry employs millions of people, contributing more than a trillion dollars to the US economy.”

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