Notes on the Future of Meat

Barak Obama’s first public remarks since his presidency took place at a technology and food summit in Milan, Italy. Among other things, he mentioned his eating habits: “What’s true is I’m not a vegetarian.” … “That doesn’t mean we can’t teach [people like me] to have a smaller steak… This also means we’re going to have to find way start producing protein in a more efficient way.”

People across the United States agree with the former president. ‘Flexitarian’ was added to Merriam-Webster Dictionary in 2012 and the diet’s on the rise. How is it defined? Those “whose normally meatless diet occasionally includes meat or fish.” There is increasing concern about the environmental impact of eating meat–everyone’s always nattering on about “ Cowspircy” on Netflix and subsequent vows of vegetarianism.

Accordingly, products catered to the conscious consumer are flooding the marketplace. Here is a look at the four main ways producers are addressing flexitarian needs.

Plant-Based Meat

Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are leaders in the imitation meat sphere. Although veggie burgers and tofu products have long been scoffed at as unconvincing reproductions of meat, these companies understand the visceral joy of chomping into a hot piece of animal flesh and they aim to deliver the same experience.

Los Angeles-based Beyond Meat bills themselves as the future of protein. They currently produce both a burger and chicken substitute. Beet juice in the burger simulates blood and the patty sizzles when it hits the grill. New York Times food writer Mark Bittman mistook the fake chicken for the real thing.

Perhaps the best evidence of Beyond Meat’s success is chicken giant Tyson Foods’ recent investment–when the big boys in the field turn their attention you must be making waves. In fact, Beyond Meat announced on  May 25th 2017 that they are hitting the mainstream and will have products available in the meat section (rather than frozen food) in 280 Safeway locations.

fake chicken
Eden and I tried the chicken and were underwhelmed.

Impossible Foods makes a burger patty out of potato protein, wheat and coconut-oil. Their secret ingredient is lab-made heme, which simulates animal blood. Impossible Foods endeavors to make their product as meat-like as possible: they conduct comprehensive research on factors such a smell, texture and the cultural significance of meat.

The Impossible Burger premiered in a few restaurants in San Francisco, LA and NYC. A new manufacturing plant with the capacity to produce 4 million burger patties per month opens this summer in Oakland, CA. With this scale of production, founder Patrick Brown believes almost everyone in America will be within an hour drive of an Impossible Burger by the end of the year.

burger bite
The Impossible Burger was like nothing else I have every eaten. Especially noteworthy was the heme, which really looked like blood.

As business continues to grow, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat will face the challenge of marketing their product outside of the coastal elites. Furthermore, they must prepare for an inevitable clash with the well-funded, entrenched, oh-so-American Meat Lobby. Steps are already being taken with the creation of a plant-based meat lobby group in Washington.

Lab-Grown Meat

Instead of building meat with vegetable components, some companies are trying to create the real thing. “Clean Meat” is produced from animal cells that are cultured and duplicated in a laboratory.

Lab-grown meat aims to be 100% indistinguishable from the real thing. In a highly publicized taste test between a lab grown and conventional burger in 2013 the judges decided it was similar to meat, but just not as juicy. The team behind that burger had forgotten to consider the fat content. On top of that, the price tag on the lab grown burger came in at $330,000.

A food researcher tastes the world's first lab-grown beef burger
2013 taste test- she looks skeptical.

Since the taste test, companies have been working on lowering price and improving taste. San Francisco based Memphis Meats has their lab-grown chicken down to $9000 per lb and project to be in supermarkets within five years. Netherlands based Mosa Meat is attracting venture capital dollars and claim to have the price of their burger down to $12 per patty.

Proponents of clean meat proclaim that moving meat production into the petri dish is the “second great domestication of animals” and marks the natural progression of food technology. If the lab-grown product can beat conventional in price and taste, I suspect that all fast food chains would adopt the lab grown version.

Ethically-Raised Meat

To appeal to conscious carnivores more producers are raising livestock with animal and environmental welfare in mind. This sort of meat appears under a myriad of labels including “ organic” “natural” “artisanal” “sustainable” and “ethical.” Grass fed beef is a good illustration of this trend. Rather then fattening a cow on grain—something ruminants are not designed to eat—cattle spend their entire life on grass. Though more time and space consumptive, this method of production is kinder to the animal, uses less outside inputs and creates a better tasting product.

Bill Niman, known as the godfather of sustainable meat, has been on the forefront of this movement. Niman raises cattle, beef and turkeys in a pastured system. The consumer demand for this kind of meat is so great that both of Niman’s enterprises were acquired by large food companies: poultry giant Perdue purchased Niman Ranch in 2015 and Blue Apron meal service bought BN Ranch in March 2017.

The problem with artisanal meat is the high price point. Even if consumers could afford this kind of food, the production systems required could not keep up with our current meat intake–people would have to (gasp) eat less meat.

As a small farmer I notice a desire for alternative small-scale meat offerings. People love the story of a rare blue footed French chicken. Customers want something that feels different from industrialized meat like rabbit.

Hand processed rabbit

Insect Protein

What uses very little land, converts feed efficiently, is high in protein and lays thousands of eggs at a time? Bugs! The search for efficient meat will inevitably lead to the consideration of insects. From 10 lbs of feed a cow will produce 1 lb of meat, while a cricket will produce 6 lbs.

A 2013 UN report found that 80% of the world’s countries eat bugs and waxed optimistic that consuming more insect protein could combat global hunger.

In the USA cricket protein bars from companies like Chapul and EXO are extremely popular among the paleo/cross fit crowd. In fact, cricket farms cannot keep up with the demand for human grade crickets. (If you’re looking for a good business prospect, become a bug farmer).

Only one thing prevents bug protein from entering the mainstream American diet: the “yuck factor.” Western diets have long conceded bugs to be a no fly zone. Advocates are trying to break this stigma. For example, Bitty Foods uses cricket flour to make beautiful baked goods. And it might be starting to work–the extreme popularity of seasoned grasshoppers at Seattle Mariners games suggests that we are almost ready.

Though these meat production options are in competition for your dollar, I like to think of them as complementary solutions to the over-consumption of meat. In the next five years we might be deciding between lab-grown chicken strips, organic quail, plant based burgers, Salisbury steak and a seasoned cricket patties for a weekend BBQ. Which would you choose?


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