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Meat-less meat takes a big step closer to becoming mainstream

Terms like “cultured proteins” may not make anyone salivate the way a sizzling steak can, but that’s not stopping Canada’s grocery sector from getting ready for meat-case revolution

High angle view pile of roasted Oaxacan grasshoppers on traditional homemade corn tortilla

Another new President’s Choice product made headlines recently. But who would have guessed what it was this time? Are you ready? It’s cricket powder, now part of Loblaw’s popular private label brand.

Last year’s breakthrough seems so much more pedestrian by comparison. It was a vegetarian burger that bleeds like a real meat patty on the grill.

Taken together, though, they show how people with money to invest in Canada’s highly competitive food market are convinced meat analogues are a good place to put that money.

They may be right. A new poll released by Dalhousie University shows that vegetarians and vegans — those who consume no animal-derived products at all — account for nearly 10 per cent of today’s Canadian market. And consumers under age 35 are three times more likely to consider themselves vegan or vegetarians than those over age 49.

“Flexitarians are consumers who tend to gravitate to eating a more predominantly vegetarian diet, and the meat industry has to contend with these people more than any other as they are becoming mainstream,” says Paul Uys, a director with the University of Guelph’s Arrell Food Institute and a former vice-president of innovation with Loblaw.

Food industry giants are definitely taking note. As just one example, Maple Leaf Foods bought two plant-based protein food companies in 2017, and Cargill and Tyson Foods, along with billionaires Richard Branson and Bill Gates, have made significant investments into Silicon Valley startup company Memphis Meats, a producer of lab-grown or cultured meat products.

“When you have top players in the food chain investing, it’s indicative of how serious this is,” Uys said while speaking at a forum on the topic in Guelph last month hosted by the Livestock Research Innovation Corporation. “We will have change in how we consume animal protein.”

Market research gathered by Guelph-based agri-tech accelerator Bioenterprise indicates plant-based proteins account for 57 per cent of the world’s protein consumption. In Canada, sales of those products are growing at seven per cent per year and represented a $1.5 billion market in 2017.

According to business analyst Alex Lazier, the new Canadian plant protein supercluster that was recently announced under the $950-million federal superclusters initiative is proof of government support for increasing production of plant-based meat alternatives. He also pointed to the latest iteration of Canada’s Food Guide, which is encouraging Canadians to consume more plant-based proteins in place of traditional meat.

Globally, humans eat close to 2,000 different insect types, and they are a favoured food choice in Asia, Africa and South America.

Insects require less land and water and leave a lower environmental footprint — and the global edible insect market is forecast to exceed US$700 million by 2024, driven in part by growing demand in Western cultures for cricket protein in cookies, crackers and chocolate.

“Most people assume we are eating bugs, but it’s actually about the enhancement and infusion of these powders into products like pasta sauces, for example,” Lazier said.

Cultured protein — in essence, meat grown from bovine stem cells — is expected to be in major grocery retail chains in the next five years. At a current estimated cost of US$11 per pound, cultured meat is not yet economically viable — but it has already come a long way since the first hamburger was grown in a petri dish in 2013 at a cost of over $300,000.

Like plant and insect protein, studies have found it has a much lower environmental footprint than traditional livestock production, and the fact it does not involve actual farming and slaughter has consumer appeal.

It still has hurdles to overcome, though. Production is not yet scaled to commercial levels, costs are high, and there is work to do on palatability.

Whether consumers will actually buy cultured meat has yet to be proven too, although U.S. consumer research conducted by Matti Wilks of Australia’s University of Queensland shows interest is there.

In all, 65 per cent of respondents said they would likely try cultured meat, and 32.6 per cent indicated they’d be likely to consume it regularly. And while they think it is more environmentally friendly and ethical, they also perceive it to be less appealing and tasty.

“People are cautiously optimistic about it, but have reservations about taste and price,” Wilks said. “People who already eat meat are more likely to try it, but less likely to see benefits. The inverse is true for people who eat less meat or are vegetarian, so the market for this product will be meat eaters.”

That’s precisely what concerns Ontario veal producer Jared Yantzi. As the University of Guelph student contemplates his future in livestock farming, he feels the impact on farmers of what is being called “cellular agriculture” will influence the definition of what is meat and what isn’t.

“Cultured protein companies all use the word “meat” in their names, and there’s now an international race to produce the most for cheapest price,” Yantzi said, mentioning companies like Memphis Meats in the U.S., Mosa Meat in the Netherlands and Super Meats in Israel.

The labelling precedent has already been set. The European Union has banned the use of the word “milk” on dairy-free beverages, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency limits use of the word to products of mammalian origin, and U.S. and Australian dairy farmers are trying to achieve similar protection.

While the extent of their impact is yet unknown, there’s no denying that alternative and cultured proteins are a rapidly growing field.

Yantzi believes research is key to the livestock industry’s preparedness for the alternative and cultured protein onslaught. That includes improvement in animal welfare and environmental footprint that currently give consumers negative perceptions of livestock production.

Uys similarly sees opportunity for the livestock industry in differentiation and responsible production, but sees no immediate clear solutions.

“People are already seeking alternatives… the industry will grow very quickly,” said Uys. “During the last 10 years of my retailing career, the change in consumers was dramatic, so what will it look like exponentially in two years?”

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