Meat substitutes emerge as protein alternative amid supply chain issues

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SINGAPORE — At Love Handle, a deli that bills itself as a butcher in downtown Singapore, there’s no meat for sale. Instead, jackfruit pastrami is cut into wafer-thin strips, ground soy beef is drenched in teriyaki sauce, and mushroom steaks are cut into fillets.

The shop, whose black-and-white checkerboard interiors house a butcher’s block, slicer and grinder, bills itself as Asia’s first plant-based meat ‘butcher’. It’s for those who want to give up animal meat without sacrificing the comfort of a double cheeseburger and fatty nuggets.

“Our inspiration was McDonald’s chicken nuggets,” said chef and co-founder Addis Tan, pointing to a steaming batch of breaded chicken alternatives. “We want customers to eat comfort foods that they can associate with memories or things their mom cooked.”

Love Handle estimates that half of its customers are meat eaters experimenting with plant-based proteins. The store hopes to steer them towards alternatives to meat with products they can easily identify, such as substitutes for meatballs and Italian herb sausages.

Alternative meats, which may include plant and animal products meat grown from cells in the laboratory, are increasingly popular with consumers and investors. Market revenue is expected to roughly double to $12.3 billion by 2029, according to market research consultants Fortune Business Insights. However, some traditional meat producers are skeptical of the continued rapid growth of substitutes. They say the alternatives do not replicate the taste of animal meat and are only likely to be consumed regularly by a small group of consumers.

In regions such as Southeast Asia, which are experiencing rapid population growth and struggling with food export restrictions, traditional meat substitutes are emerging as a reliable protein alternative. And it’s not just appealing to vegetarians: the meat substitute industry is becoming the darling of food safety experts, venture capitalists and corporations trying to insulate themselves from the pains of the supply chain. ‘supply.

The robots are here. And they make you fries.

Such alternatives often require less space, water, time and materials to manufacture, researchers say, making them more resilient to the supply chain shocks that have plagued the pharmaceutical industry recently. animal meat. In some parts of the world, such as northern Europe, some alternatives are becoming as cheap as traditional meat, a shift investors hope will reach more price-conscious consumers in less affluent countries that consume more and more meat.

“Soon, having a meat steak will be an upscale experience, a treat for a special occasion,” Tan said.

Alternative meats, once considered an expensive novelty, have become particularly attractive following bird flu outbreaks in Europe, pandemic lockdowns in China and war in Ukraine, all of which have hurt the world’s supply of animal protein. In Asia, supplies were further squeezed in May when Malaysia announced a ban – since relaxed – on chicken exports and India imposed export restrictions on wheat, a major ingredient in animal feed.

Global meat prices hit a record high in June, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Meat Price Index. (Prices have since fallen slightly, but are still up sharply from a year ago.) The price of a dozen large eggs in U.S. cities also hit a record high of $3.11 in August. .

By contrast, industry professionals say better technology and greater scale have allowed them to sell alternative meats at increasingly lower costs. In the Netherlands, meat substitutes became cheaper than animal protein in 2022, according to a study commissioned by a Dutch nonprofit that promotes meat substitutes. Some alternative egg products have also reached price parity with eggs of animal origin.

But on average, plant-based meat is twice as expensive as beef and more than four times as expensive as chicken per pound, according to a 2021 report from the nonprofit Good Food Institute that cites Nielsen data. .

Some meat substitute makers in North America and Britain, such as Beyond Meat, also faced higher costs and were unable to rapidly increase sales this year as the inflation is holding back cost-conscious customers in key markets.

For those who have been looking for meat alternatives for a long time, the drop in prices has been a game-changer.

Audrey Seah, 54, searches for alternative meats to create Southeast Asian dishes such as chicken rice and pulled beef for her vegan husband. A few years ago, the products were too expensive for his budget and hard to find. Now they have their own section in the frozen food aisle of her local supermarket.

“Prices have come down, and in some supermarkets you can now find alternatives at the same price as meats,” she said. Lower prices mean the Seah family is eating more alternative protein than ever.

Investors are betting that these trends will continue and that as the production of alternatives increases and prices fall, new markets will open up. “We can’t compete with cheap chicken in Indonesia, but it’s just a matter of scale,” said Michal Klar, founding partner of Better Bite Ventures, a fund that invests in food start-ups. meat substitutes in Asia. “It’s a Tesla model. You start high-end, the scale isn’t quite there, but hopefully some countries can skip the transition as people increase their meat consumption.

Production of meat substitutes can also be more responsive to changes in demand, said Helga Angelina Tjahjadi, co-founder of Green Rebel, an Indonesian start-up that produces whole cuts of meat substitutes from mushroom fibers and soy. Increasing production can be as simple as running a machine longer or investing in larger equipment, she says. The company is also able to use the same machines to produce alternatives to beef or chicken, allowing them to switch between products to meet changing demand.

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For William Chen, developing an alternative to meat is a matter of national security.

The food science professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore has spent years developing a climate-resilient urban farming system, including a fungus he says can grow without light and little water. Potential use cases include feeding a population during droughts, pandemics, and even during a nuclear apocalypse.

“You can literally grow them in your closet,” he said. “They are independent of all those conditions that affect us, like climate change or war.”

Singapore, a small, densely populated country, imports around 90% of the food it needs to feed its 5.6 million people. Since land is scarce, most crops must be grown vertically, in rooftop gardens and stacked greenhouses. The country hopes to use alternative proteins, including lab-grown meat and mushrooms raised in urban basements, to help produce 30% of its own food by 2030.

The Southeast Asian city-state is also courting companies looking to experiment with new ways of making food. In 2020, it became the first country in the world to allow cultured meat to be sold to the public. These meats are produced when cells extracted from living animals multiply in a laboratory and grow into an edible-sized piece of meat.

In June, food technology company Eat Just opened a multimillion-dollar facility in Singapore, the largest cultured meat production center in Asia, according to the company. The facility will have the capacity to produce tens of thousands of pounds of meat from animal cells.

Eat Just also makes mung bean protein eggs, which require 98% less water and 80% less land to produce, the company said. This summer, he was able to match the prices of premium pet eggs in many markets for the first time, offering his mung bean protein eggs for $3.99 a bottle, the equivalent of eight eggs.

“It’s not that we’re completely isolated from the global supply chain…but we’re just less impacted than an egg company because we don’t rely on a product that goes up and down based on all of these factors,” the Eat Just founder said. said Josh Tetrick.

“A conventional animal protein system is not designed for the world where climate risks are increasing,” Tetrick said. “It’s not built for a growing population or a world of water scarcity. It is not built for a world that needs more food security.

But for some consumers, the compromise remains too costly.

“It’s too hard and too expensive,” said Clare Chua, a 31-year-old business developer, as she bit into a $17 double cheeseburger with a soybean patty and slices of plant-based cheddar cheese at Love Handle. “If you want to become a vegetarian, just eat vegetables.”

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