My newsfeed over the last few weeks has been dominated by plant-based “meats.” Of course, the largest story in that sector was the successful initial public offering of Beyond Meat, which led to all manner of articles questioning the future of meat. Some writers were so sure that we’ll all be eating plants within the next five years that they forgot that this was one IPO for one company – hardly enough to bring a sea change to the American diet.
Plant-based meat alternatives — there are so many laws now regarding the use of “meat” that I’m unsure what the preferred nomenclature is — are big. Go to any restaurant and you’ll see some some meat alternative on the menu. Big companies like Tyson and Cargill are partnering with or developing their own alternatives to traditional meat, whether it be plant-based or cell-based. Despite the anti-meat activists who think these products will tip the scales in their favor, I don’t think it’s time to toss aside your smokehouses and knives just yet.
First of all, the evolution of meatless meat products into something edible has been a long time coming. The earliest attempts of plant-based burgers tasted basically like seasoned cardboard — trust me, I know. As food technology improved, it was inevitable that vegetarian-food would eventually become palatable. The meat industry has the tools to evolve as well, and I see it every time I go to a food show or get new product press releases. The variety of meat-based items continues to grow and innovate to meet the latest consumer trends, making this industry way too creative to ever become irrelevant.
Secondly, people who truly look for “clean-label” foods will always turn to meat. The ingredients list of a plant-based burger at my local grocery store contain the following: cellulose from bamboo, maltodextrin, pea protein isolate, expeller-pressed canola oil and succinic acid. The ingredients of a beef patty at the same store contain the following: beef.
The rise of meat alternatives does signal that more people are concerned about environmental issues and sustainability. The meat industry’s role in climate change is still uncertain, as any study that blames the industry for environmental harm is contradicted by the next study. What processors can do is make their operations operate as cleanly as possible. Eliminate waste where you can, consider packaging that maintains shelf life while being environmentally friendly, calculate your carbon footprint and look for ways to reduce it. The industry has embraced sustainability, but there is always room for improvement.
The plant-based and cell-based alternatives have their niche and will continue to evolve and innovate. If the meat industry does the same, there is no reason to fear the future.