Flesh and Blood: What’s the Future of Fake Meat?

Alternative meat production has captured the public eye, and investors are hoping the public palate and pocketbook follow. ( Beyond Meat )

Give us our pound of flesh—real or fake? Investors are baying for a bite of fake meat, seasoned with a dash of old-school capitalism, a pinch of market savvy, and a touch of moral purity. Alternative, clean, plant-based, analogue, in vitro, or whatever meat title is the du jour choice of the hour, world demand for meat substitutes is expected to hit $6.43 billion by 2023. Could a meatless revolution curb the cravings of a $900-billion-plus global real-meat market? New money shines brightest, but despite a stampede of investment, the future of fake meat is hardly settled.

The pace of the alternative meat market expansion is dizzying, with substitute products estimated to tally $4.63 billion in 2018. The big guns of ADM, Cargill, Tyson and a host of others are elbowing for space, each keen for a serving of the latest and greatest in alternative meat fare. Innumerable smaller companies are jumping into the game, with new startups popping up monthly. If the alternative meat industry meets the herculean task on taste, texture, smell, and price, what might be the effect on livestock herds munching grain and grass from Mississippi to Montana?

In beef, chicken, pork, fish, shrimp and all the other members of meat’s family reserve, the hunt is on for tasty replacements based in plants, algae, insects, and methane, or laboratory alternatives essentially borne of a petri dish. The alternative meat movement is riding a strong current alongside a host of contributing factors bobbing in the flow: ideology, environmental concerns, capitalism, population forecasts, health alarms, and more. Even celebrity status plays a role in the future of alternative meat. Bill Gates and Richard Branson have a financial stake in Memphis Meats, a San Francisco-based company aiming to mass-produce laboratory meat, while Leonardo DeCaprio backs Beyond Meat, a high-profile plant-based meat maker. (Branson predicts fake meat will supplant real meat production within 30 years.) Bottom line, the potential of alternative meat production has captured the public eye, and investors are hoping the public palate and pocketbook follow.

Big Boys, Small Boys

Meat consumption is climbing across the globe and is projected to continue a sharp rise in conjunction with a world population on pace for 9.6 billion by 2050. Ultimately, alternative meat may be a complement, but not a substitution, to the overall meat market. Dan Hale, Extension meat specialist at Texas A&M University, believes alternative meat demand will ascend in tandem with real meat demand: “I see meat consumption going up and alternatives going up. Both industries can maintain and grow. There is a younger generation trying new foods for a mixed bag of reasons and the reality is they don’t always have big loyalty to meat products.”

“More retail outlets and hamburger chains are going to offer alternatives, but again, as an addition, not a substitute. When McDonald’s first offered salads that changed the dynamic, but it didn’t affect the core. I expect we could see the same situation with alternatives.”

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Hale doesn’t view alternative products as a threat to the meat market. However, he says the message toe-tagged to alternatives often maligns the traditional meat industry: “The biggest threat arrives when people claim alternatives are more environmentally friendly or healthier. The information is often false and based on personal world views regarding the use of animal products for food and fiber.”

Alternative meat plays off public fear, according to Jeff Savell, meat science specialist at Texas A&M University. “If you are already scared that something is bad for the environment, or loaded with hormones and antibiotics, then anything said to the contrary gives a leg up to a competitor.”

All products are only novel once and carry a short shelf life of curiosity. Alternative meat will have to deliver long-term, Savell emphasizes. “Look at the challenges of grass fed beef. It’s viewed positively by most everyone, but getting repeat customers is the difficulty.”

Savell expects alternative meat growth to progress as companies jockey for position and market share. Profit is certainly significant, but initially can play second fiddle as big-name companies spend money to keep up appearances, he explains. Perception looms large, because Cargill and Tyson can’t afford to let others get ahead: “The heavy hitters in the protein business don’t want to be left in the cold. It’s not necessarily about profit, but sometimes a given company works in an area to please a group of customers or investors. We see small companies popping up everywhere looking for meat niches and hoping to get products going. The small boys hope to get bought up by big boys and hit a huge payday.”

Fact and Falsity

Despite alternative meat’s fast-paced resurgence, Derrell Peel, Extension livestock marketing specialist at Oklahoma State University, forecasts a perpetually limited market. “It’s generated a lot of interest and we’ll see even more, but I don’t see alternative meat as a genuine, long-term threat to the normal meat industry.”

Peel believes alternative meat will settle in the same market share arena as natural, organic, local or grass-fed products. “The specialty meat categories are viable and grow so fast in percentage terms, but always have a ceiling. I think the same general pattern will follow with substitute meat.”

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Peel sees alternative meat drivers bookended by simple capitalism and ideology. “If burger chains perceive customer interest, they’ll make sure alternatives are there for a complete menu. On the flip side, ideology drives alternatives as well, and that includes everything from animal rights to environmentalism. Long-term, I see alternatives in a niche-based category.”

The promises of alternative meat associated with carbon footprint reductions, decreased land or water use, human health benefits, and animal welfare energize proponents, but are disconnected from agricultural reality, according to Brandi Karisch, Extension beef cattle specialist at Mississippi State University (MSU). “Fake meat is a great theory on paper, but there’s no way to know big market reality.”

Major players have little choice but to pursuit alternative meat as a means to protect image and placate a segment of consumers, Karisch contends: “We’re going to keep seeing investments because this is wide-open capitalism. These companies want to get in on the ground floor instead of chasing later and getting bad publicity.”

Karisch’s MSU colleague, Extension beef instructor Cobie Rutherford, says alternative meat proponents often replace facts with false narratives. “They have the advantage of a feel-good story that part of the public believes regardless of the truth. We have to continue finding ways to tell our story better because the noise around fake meat is going to get louder.”

Tube Cows?

The technology for laboratory-grown meat is moving rapidly, essentially using stem cells (ability to regenerate) from live animals to grow bulk meat. Cells divide and form new muscle tissues—building enough mass for a burger in two to three months. In 2013, Dutch scientists at Mosa Meat created the first lab-cultured hamburger. Mosa Meat aims to achieve industrial scale production by approximately 2025. Price per pound is reportedly exorbitant, but advocates claim prices will drop toward a real meat level by market introduction. In 2015, Peter Verstrate, director of Mosa Meat, told the BBC: "I feel extremely excited about the prospect of this product being on sale. And I am confident that when it is offered as an alternative to meat that increasing numbers of people will find it hard not to buy our product for ethical reasons"

Laboratory meat products, regardless of taste and price, are arguably a regulatory minefield. Does jurisdiction belong to FDA or USDA? Throw in the semantic nightmare of legislators defining “meat” and the tangle gets tighter.

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“Is this meat?” Hale asks. “Nobody knows what it is, but it’s disingenuous to call it ‘clean meat.’ This is produced out of body and that means an environment potentially open to bacteria contamination. Synthetic hormones and other enrichments may be used to enhance the process, but who is going to oversee the approval of those compounds and processes? At this point we do not know what the process will look like and what the final consumer product will actually be.”

Savell views lab-grown products as a particular threat to the beef industry. “Beef is generally the highest priced protein and provides the most room for competition. The technology is going to keep moving and if the market is there, people are going to figure it out. Lab-grown products could be a potential threat to the livestock industry.”

On May 17, 2018, Missouri lawmakers sent legislation to Gov. Eric Greiten’s desk (now Mike Parson), outlawing the labeling of substitute products or lab-grown products as meat. If the governor gives the nod, Missouri will be the first state to wade into the alternative meat labeling fray. “What claims can you make on a label? What standards are needed? These questions are going to have to be answered nationwide,” Savell notes.

Labels and descriptions are not a semantic game, Savell continues. “At some point, this is headed toward a fight over name protection. What is meat? What is ground meat? The manner in which these questions are addressed will be huge for the livestock industry.”

Possibly foreshadowing alternative meat issues, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb (speaking at the POLITICO Pro Summit on July 17, 2018) said the agency soon will release a guidance document related to a change in milk marketing rules. Currently, consumers peering through the glass at grocery chains discern little difference between the labeling of dairy milk and almond- or soy-derived alternatives. The dairy industry is eager for a pronounced line of demarcation.

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Protection of product branding is crucial, Savell urges, an issue borne out by dairy milk’s current labeling controversy. “Take a lesson from what happened to dairy. Go to a supermarket and all the so-called milk products are packaged the same with no clear labeling distinctions.”

Rutherford believes laboratory alternatives throw up too many red flags for potential buyers. “Consumers are already concerned over food origins and GMOs. Ultimately, I don’t think lab meat will negatively impact our industry because consumers will be loaded with too many questions and unknowns.”

“Truth in labeling will be huge,” Karisch adds. “Who is going to inspect all these lab products? How? They should face the same intensive scrutiny we face in the beef industry.”

Milk and Meat

Milk teaches meat, contends Adam Ozimek, a senior economist covering U.S. labor markets and demographics at Moody’s Analytics. A gargantuan challenge faced by alternatives is to be a real meat twin—to the point and price where the public doesn’t mind switching between products, Ozimek describes. “There’s intuitive appeal to thinking it could happen, especially if you are heavily optimistic about technology, but I believe skepticism is merited based on what is happening with milk.”

Compared to meat, milk is elementary. Capturing the look and texture of dairy milk with almond, rice or soy is relatively simple compared alongside the complexities of meat. “Fake milk doesn’t have near the production issues of meat, yet it has hit the ceiling and only managed to capture close to 10% of the overall milk market. Proponents say fake meat is going to capture a far greater market share despite facing much, much bigger challenges?”

Homerun of Nature

As more alternative meat products hit store shelves, what wild cards could upend the dynamic? Price and taste, Ozimek says. “The taste and texture of meat is vastly more complex than milk. As far as price, fake meat isn’t cheap, but what would happen if someday it actually underpriced real meat? In time, prices will fall, but there’s no way to know how much.”

Price and taste loom largest for Peel: “There will always be a group of folks willing to pay high prices, but they’ll only be a subset. If you’re trying to taste like something you’re not, then no matter how you’re engineered you’ll never quite be that somebody else.”

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Taste and texture are big question marks for Karisch, particularly on high-end alternatives such as steak. “Replicating a burger and steak are two different worlds. Flavor and texture in steak represent a steep, steep hill to climb.”

“Beef is a homerun in nature, textured with a wonderful flavor and smell,” Savell adds. “A temporary halo effect for these imitation products is real, but ultimately consumers vote with their taste buds.”

Hale adds nutrition to the wild card list. The nutritional value of alternatives is not necessarily equivalent to meat products: “Meat has all the essential amino acids, which in the right amount are very absorbable to the human body. Plant proteins must be supplemented if they’re going to mimic meat. For example, the absorption of iron is just not the same with plants. Consumers should be aware of that.”

Turn of a Friendly Card?

As investors pour money into meat alternatives, the horizon is a haze of conjecture, heavily subject to the turn of wild cards. For Karisch, the only certainty starts with America’s love for blood-red meat thrown on the grill. “The future of fake meat technology is too hard to call, but I know if we weren’t doing things right in the beef industry, we wouldn’t have a billion-dollar industry chasing behind, trying to do what we do. They’re trying to imitate us—the highest form of flattery. America’s love of real meat isn’t going anywhere.”

Over the past 30 years, global population has climbed by 50%. Over the next 30 years, global population is projected to slow, but still grow by just below 30%. Despite the increase, Ozimek is confident about agriculture’s ability to feed an expanding world with products of all stripes. “I’m not alarmed by population increases because I feel strongly about our ability to feed everyone, and that means an increased demand for meat of all sorts, including substitute products.”

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Regardless of which way consumer winds blow, the agriculture industry must be prepared, according to Savell. “This shouldn’t come down to one item is bad and one item is good. That has happened to other products and that shouldn’t happen with meat.”

Echoing Savell, Hale says kneejerk reactions are detrimental to agriculture. “I’m not going to call it ‘clean meat,’ but at the same time I applaud the technology and support its research. We’re going to need all the food sources we can get and there’s no reason to disparage another product.”

“My ability as a futurist is poor,” Peel concludes, “but I don’t think alternative meat will take away a big chunk of the current meat market. I think it will have legitimate market share, just like the specialty meats of today. I keep a simple view: If people want something that tastes like a burger, in the end they’re just going to go buy a real burger.”

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