Meat of the Matter: The alt-meat dilemma

Meat alternatives, what I'm calling the "alt-meat" category, is emerging as a hot new development for a group of well-funded food development entrepreneurs.

Now, that's not a new trend, as an entire generation of vegetarian entrées and analog products offering meatless meatloaf and beef-free burgers have been developed and marketed by savvy entrepreneurs over the last 15 years.

A number of these products died on the vine, so to speak, but the ones that managed to carve out some case space at retail were quickly snatched up by the national, name-brand food companies.

They know a growth segment when they see one.

What's been a new twist on the vegetarian trend is the emergence of meatless "meat" products. Instead of merely figuring out how to formulate soy and other plant proteins into a patty or nugget or fillet, this new wave of products is attempting to produce a product that actually looks and tastes like meat, only without any animal involvement whatsoever.

These new products aren't being developed to capitalize on people's aversion to eating meat because of perceived nutritional negatives, or concerns over animal welfare, but against the backdrop of climate change, resource depletion and environmental destruction — all (allegedly) caused by the cattle you see grazing in some field across most of rural America.

(One quick aside: The meme that "a pound of beef requires 2,000 gallons of water" is a huge part of the argument that meat production is ecologically unsustainable. But that's based on a calculation that the average steer gains some 600 pounds in a feedlot, which at a 7:1 feed conversion ratio — highly suspect—means each animal consumes some 3,880 pounds of corn. Since it takes about 350,000 gallons of water to grow an acre of corn, much of which comes from rainfall, of course, then activists can project that the 70 pounds of marketable beef in each carcass required the inflated total of 2,000 gallons of water.)

The underlying problem

For an example of the new wave of meatless products, take the Impossible Burger.


This non-meat patty is generating a lot of attention, mainly because of a few celebrity chefs hawking its desirability.

The "burger" is formulated with heme protein from plants, plus wheat gluten, soy protein, protein from potatoes and coconut oil. Heme protein, according to food analysts, comprises less than 2% of the Impossible Burger, but it provides some of the flavor and texture, or mouthfeel, of ground beef.

Only one problem: The Impossible Burger costs about $12 apiece in restaurants in New York and California.

Another competitor in this new category, the Beyond Burger, retails (in select stores) for anywhere from $5 to $6. That's not six bucks a pound, that's six bucks a burger.

And that's the bottom line to all these meatless burgers and veggie patties and alternative sources of edible protein: They're designed, engineered and marketed to a small slice of the consuming public — which, by the way, is everyone. An upscale, affluent, well-educated demographic is the target audience for all these products.

That's all well and good for folks who can afford to load up their shopping carts at Whole Foods Market and other specialty supermarkets, but the alt-meat category is decidedly not positioned or priced for mass consumption.

Yet that is exactly the argument that the proponents of analog or vegetarian alternatives continually make: We need to stop eating meat as a routine part of our daily diets if we hope the save the planet from the total destruction that herds of cattle, sheep, pigs and every other species of livestock are supposedly going to inflict on the Earth.

Creating a high-priced, high-tech, input-intensive food product that is as far away from the natural foods that anti-meat activists love to preach about as humanity's preferred sustenance is decidedly not the solution to the challenge of feeding the nine billion people expected to be alive and hungry around the world in the next 30 years.

All these meatless burgers may taste okay and may well deliver suitable nutritional value, but if the concern is how to make food production more efficient and affordable, we need to look somewhere other than inside of a test tube.

Or in a Whole Foods "meat" case.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food industry journalist and commentator