Since the 1970s, vegetarians have tried to launch meat substitutes based on vegetable proteins. It is only in the last twenty years that innovative companies have been offering alternative meats that are more attractive in terms of visual and taste. Some of them, like Beyond Meat or Impossible Food, are shaking up the world of meat as we know it. Their conquest of the market is struggling to overcome a contradiction: they have to copy a sector that they denigrate. In this adventure, France, usually a pioneer in supporting startups, is reluctant to give them access to meat consumers. Acting in this sense, Interbev is working to preserve the interests of the French meat industry by protecting its names, symbols of the agricultural world. The threat does not only come from plant protein, but also from the ability of laboratories, financed by private interests, to create laboratory meat from animal stem cells. Proponents of these alternative meats boast that they are better able to preserve natural resources and the environment. However, shouldn’t the States also take care of the preservation of culinary cultures and the people who live from them?
Vegetarian “meat” comes out of its niche
Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, Meatless Farm Co, Oumph! and The Vegetarian Butcher are drawing an alternative future to “liberate nature” by marketing meat without animal proteins. An initiative that seduces investors but meets resistance from a fringe of the population and from financially damaged farmers.
Beyond Meat, based in Los Angeles, welcomes visitors to its unmarked and anonymous site, and only after they have committed themselves to a certain confidentiality. Visitors are shown dishes made from beets, rice, peas and coconut oil.
The brand agrees to receive and communicate but limits access to its facilities and prohibits photos. Ethan Brown, founder of Beyond Meat, justifies himself by explaining that the stakes are high in the vegetable meat market and that he must protect his innovations to remain the leader. He sees himself as the GAFA of the food industry and investors seem to follow him, the company is valued at almost $9 billion on the financial markets.
In this market, the offer does not only meet a demand, it also offers a sustainable alternative to consumption according to the CEO. In Los Angeles, the majority of restaurants are already displaying plant-based “meats” alongside ribs and steaks.
The United States has seen a 27% increase in sales of these products (Good Food Institute) and the figures are promising for Europe, led by Germany and the Netherlands. France is still lagging behind, undoubtedly held back by its gastronomic culture.
Even if the worldwide consumption of alternative meat represents less than 5%, it goes beyond the stage of a simple ecological fad. Budgets allocated to the search for a meat substitute with a similar taste and texture are counted in billions. The challenge is to seduce animal meat eaters, whether they are omnivores, flexitarians or vegetarians.
Matthieu Vincent, director of the Parisian consulting firm DigitalFoodLab, recalls that in one year, $1.5 billion was invested in the promotion of plant-based meat and that the budgets related to research on alternative proteins jumped by almost 180% in the same period.
All these companies have a strong ally, the environmental concerns of the States and, to a lesser extent, the effects of excessive meat consumption on health. Others, such as SynBioBeta, even argue that the increase in demand for meat will not be sustainable for the production sector, especially since animal welfare is now part of the equation.
The beginnings of plant-based “meat” were not taken seriously immediately, according to Jaap Korteweg, who says he is surprised by the current craze. A farmer in the Netherlands for nine generations, he was hit hard by the swine flu that hit his country in the 2000s. Faced with the corpses stored in his cold room, he realized that he had to adopt another way, became vegetarian and launched his vegetarian butcher shop in 2010.
The market is dubious but journalists, chefs and investors are beginning to take an interest in this meatless butcher who poses in a white apron “bloodied” with carrot juice. Investors remain cautious, the ascent is laborious but the vegetarian butcher refers to 4000 stores.
In 2018, the Unilever group bought his business and reworked the concept, including a research team ten times larger with a good return on investment: +70% in 2020.
Another victory, that of Beyond Meat and Impossible Food, which were inducted by the Nasdaq, a sign of the interest of investors. For the founders, this is the end of doubts and mockery. Forget the first tastings where investors were doubtful and snide, rejecting the concept.
In Los Angeles, Beyond Meat is currently building offices, laboratories and a campus on 25,000 square meters, while it has just opened plants in Europe and Asia. It now faces a serious competitor, Impossible Food.
Impossible Food, located in San Francisco, is the brainchild of Pat Brown, a former professor of biochemistry at Stanford. The founder relies on science to succeed. His latest study is on pollution from animal agriculture: Eliminating Animal Agriculture Would Negate 56 Percent of Anthropogenic Greenhouse Gas Emissions Through 2100.
After extensive research, he succeeded in synthesizing heme from soybeans using genetically modified yeast. This red compound contains iron which gives the same metallic taste as meat. His primary ambition is not entrepreneurship, but the creation of his company and its listing on the stock exchange legitimize his scientific research work.
This process of elaboration allows to obtain a substitute with a taste very close to the one of meat but the compound is not yet authorized in Europe.
With catchy slogans and VIP guests, the two companies, Beyond Meat and Impossible Food, are waging an image war to see which one will best embody the new “cool” attitude towards food. This communication targets young people who react favorably to this new gastronomic philosophy. The founders are welcomed as VIPs when they speak at university conferences.
The grail in terms of development remains the fast-food market, notably McDonald’s and its 2.5 billion burgers per year. Early attempts at stand-alone veggie burgers were not successful, Beyond Meat and Impossible Food know they need to lean on the industry’s benchmark to penetrate this market.
In 2014, Kathy Freston, owner of the best vegan restaurant in Los Angeles was invited on Oprah Winfrey, she explained that she regretted the absence of a vegetarian menu at McDonald’s.
In front of the public’s infatuation for the restaurant owner, the fast-food chain tried to market a vegan hamburger in some Finnish outlets, without success. It has to be said that the chain is not organized for the preparation and cooking of vegan steaks, unless it invests in new equipment, an additional cost that the restaurant managers cannot afford.
It is finally Burger King that signs the first one with Impossible Food. At the same time, McDonald’s started a collaboration with Beyond Meat, to stay in the race.
What is the meat industry doing in the face of this challenge? It is rushing to invest in this new activity which is so popular but which needs substantial research budgets. For the meat industry, it is a way to take part in the emergence of this new market and to understand its threats and opportunities, a strategy that its detractors call “greenwashing”.
Thus, the leading American beef exporter Tyson Foods has invested $34 million in Beyond Meat, while the Brazilian leader JBS has bought the startup Vivera, which prepares dishes based on plant proteins, for nearly 350 million euros.
A new American challenger, Atlast Food, is trying to differentiate itself by using mushrooms and natural proteins. According to its CEO, the new products on the market have a composition too rich. However, in terms of nutrition, the recommendations are for products that are not very processed and contain few ingredients.
For its flagship product, bacon, Atlast Food assures that it uses only six ingredients, whereas classic hams have 7 or 8 ingredients. Bacon is a flagship product in the United States, with the American market alone worth $6 billion. The company sells its product in only one supermarket for the moment, but customers are quite enthusiastic about it.
Jeroen Willemsen, head of Foodvalley, a food innovation platform, sees startups attracted by the success of Beyond Meat or Impossible Food. Among the rigorously selected startups, one out of two goes bankrupt. The exercise is twofold, simultaneously overcoming the obstacles of a startup while overcoming the costs of innovation.
A less capitalist vegan ancestor
A less capitalist vegan ancestor
In the early 1970s, the Dutchman Jan Juffermans was already dreaming of a meatless society.
In 1972, when the Club of Rome, a think tank of the time, published its report on the environmental consequences of growth, entitled The Limits to Growth, he became an activist, notably by parodying the Dutch government’s campaign in favor of the meat industry. Supported in his action by the press and NGOs, he will devote his career to activism through various initiatives:
- Petition for a meat tax alongside the True Animal Protein Price Coalition;
- Actions against the banker of polluting companies with Extinction Rebellion ;
- Organization of a vegetarian meal with local farmers and activists.
The fight is not over. In the Dutch village of Boxtel, activists are demanding the closure of the largest slaughterhouse in the country. The objective is ambitious, this slaughterhouse slaughters 20,000 pigs a day, the group that owns it employs 4,500 people and has an annual turnover of $4.9 billion.
It was also in 1971 that The Farm was born in Tennessee, a community of radical vegetarians, guided by Stephen Gaskin, a former teacher at the University of San Francisco. Among the many rules, no animal products are allowed. On this $150-acre land, the community grows and produces everything they need, including tempeh, a fermented soybean that resembles meat. A microbiology lab is being built to refine the tempeh recipe, with the hope that it will supplant meat. The community’s spiritual guide is based on the book “Diet for a small planet” written by Frances Moore Lappé in 1971. In this groundbreaking book, she encouraged people to adopt a new diet to protect natural resources.
This literary success inspired some entrepreneurial minds, including in the hippie community. Gregory Sams is one of them. Disgusted with meat, he discovered macrobiotics, a form of harmonization between his diet and his philosophy. In 1968, confined to a wheelchair following an accident, he left the United States for Great Britain and opened his vegetarian restaurant in London under the name Seed. There he offered a vegetarian burger under the name of veggie burger, a brand name that he registered in 1980 and that was a huge success. In 1988, he decided to sell his company to return to his first hippie aspirations.
Inspired by Gregory Sam, Seth Tibbott launched Turtle Island Foods and proposed, in 1995, an innovative product: a 100% tofu Thanksgiving turkey, the Tofurky. After having sold several million units, he proposes tofu-based cold cuts.
He then seeks to structure himself to develop on a larger scale, he will meet a young entrepreneur, Ethan Brown, future head of Beyond Meat, the latter will choose to launch solo. If he did not finalize his collaboration with the founder of Beyond Meat, Seth Tibbott admits to surfing on the craze caused by Beyond Meat and Impossible Food.
For Gregory Sam, the risk, if there is no regulation, is to fall into the agri-food industrialization reproached to the beef industry with hyper-processed products, perhaps more harmful than meat. As for Marian Grebanier, former follower of The Farm, now an ecologist thinh tank, the mistake is to want to imitate meat rather than adopt a new diet by rediscovering food variety.
Vegetable steak, France resists
French farmers are trying to oppose this conquest of the meat consumer which, according to them, is accompanied by a campaign of denigration while closing the door to any alternative. For the agricultural world, this is undoubtedly a desire for eradication.
The collectives representing farmers and all professionals in the meat industry are lobbying and fighting against abusive semantic use. Cédric Viallemonteil, a French farmer living in the Massif Central, blames the new veal steak companies for stealing names that he considers to be reserved, such as “fermier”. He also regrets that this emerging industry is turning them into polluters and murderers.
Opposite him, Cédric Meston and Guillaume Dubois are the founders of “Les Nouveaux Fermiers”, the first French startup to present steaks, nuggets, aiguillettes, chipolatas… made from plants. Former McKinsey collaborators, they seduced Xavier Niel, the Bpi and Adrien de Schompré (Sushi Shop) and succeeded in placing their products in 1,000 points of sale and 400 restaurant outlets. However, the two young creators are keeping a low profile, cooled down by the threats received by their customers or themselves. Structures, factories, turnover, everything remains confidential.
Beyond the economic battle, veganism is also an ideological battle. After several years of veganism tinged with marginalization, Jean-Luc Zieger launched his specialized vegan store in 2009. This one generates today several million euros. He recognizes that the year 2015 and its videos L214 denouncing animal abuse have marked a turning point in the consideration of new food modes.
Despite this, it is difficult to ignore the interests of a meat industry that generates over 30 billion euros annually and employs 100,000 people. The meat industry is a leader and powerful, its network of lobbies has an efficient address book. The FNSEA and Interbev have almost direct access to the decision makers of the French government.
The Fédération nationale des syndicats d’exploitants agricoles (FNSEA) has more than 200,000 members and the Association nationale interprofessionnelle du bétail et des viandes (Interbev) has a budget of 32 million euros per year to support its sector, in particular through the collection of a mandatory contribution on meat products, paid by all actors in the sector.
These two defenders of the meat track down the non-regulatory or misleading names for the consumer and demand the withdrawal of the incriminated products, under the code of consumption, the craft industry… The majority executes for lack of means to defend themselves
Since 2020, words such as steak or sausage are banned from plant-based protein products, at least on French territory because the European Parliament refused to restrict the use of burger or sausage.
As early as September 2020, Interbev, Inaporc and Anvol took the company “Les Nouveaux Fermiers” to court for the use of the words “farmers” and “meat” before attacking the Beyond Meat logo. Marc Pagès, director of Interbev, is confident that he has the support of the Elysée and the government.
The French government defends having chosen a side. The Minister of Agriculture recalls that he promised 120 million euros for the structuring of the plant protein sector to deal with soybean and pea imports. But he confirms that he will not take any decision that would harm the development of a national meat industry.
Thomas Jonas, founder of Nature’s Fynd, based in Chicago, has decided to pursue his entrepreneurial experience far from France. His company is supported by Gates, Al Gore or Bezos. He predicts a bright future for alternative products and is working on new proteins from fungi. For him, yeast and bacteria are already anchored in French products: baguette, cheese and wine. France? That will be for later, but he regrets that his country is lagging behind in this area, blinded by lobbying.
However, the “alternative meat” market is growing by 8% per year, Burger King has launched its Veggie King, with greater success than expected.
Etienne Fourmont, a farmer in the Sarthe region of France, concedes that it is better to coexist than to resist in vain in the face of possible changes in eating habits. He hopes that these alternatives will at least benefit employment in the region.
What potential for stem cell steak?
Laboratory-grown meat seems to be a promising compromise between conventional meat and plant-based alternatives: meat without animal sacrifice.
In Israel, The Chicken offers vegan dishes made from cells taken from the egg and grown for a few days in a bioreactor. The restaurant offers the experience of this meal because the sale of this type of product is not yet authorized. As a result, you have to sign up on a waiting list six months in advance to hope to get a place in this restaurant. For vegetarians nostalgic for meat, this is a godsend.
For the CEO of SuperMeat, the initiator of the project, it is impossible to tell the difference between the meat he serves and that from free-range poultry.
While plant proteins may provide the color and taste of meat, Yaakov Nahmias, founder of Future Meat Technologies and a Harvard and MIT alumnus, confirms that plant proteins do not provide the characteristic smell of meat.
Around the world, 80 startups are working on the development of an animal-free meat. The principle is repeated, take a cell from an animal and multiply it in the laboratory in a solution composed of amino acids, glucose and vitamins. Sometimes, researchers add fetal serum in a bioreactor.
The resulting muscle, fat or cartilage cells are collected and prepared using a 3D printer, a process that takes between 2 and 8 weeks.
In 2013, Mark Post, a researcher at the Dutch University of Maastricht presented his first “in vitro” hamburger to the public, worth 250,000 euros. Two hundred journalists covered the event, a food critic and a nutritionist were invited to taste this exceptional hamburger. Mark Post was able to complete his project thanks to Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, who wanted to reduce animal suffering.
History proves Churchill right when he exposed the absurdity of raising a chicken to eat only a few parts of it.
The Dutch precursor Willem van Eelen filed a first patent in 1999. He is considered the pioneer of cultured meat. Mark Post supported him, as well as Jason Matheny, now an advisor to Joe Biden and founder of New Harvest, a research institute dedicated to cellular agriculture.
The difficulty lies in the size of the investment funds needed to create an industrial stage of production. In 2020, the Israeli government had supported up to 85% of the Aleph Farms project of the French-Israeli Didier Toubia. The startup is now valued at $118 million.
In addition to the debate on the “kosher” qualification of this new meat, some doubt its capacity to produce enough meat to satisfy all the needs. In addition, researchers point to the risks of infection associated with the use of cell multiplication.
Ricardo San Martin, director of the Center for Meat Alternatives at the University of California, Berkeley, explains that few companies have filed patents on successful processes.
Despite this reluctance, some U.S. entrepreneurs are anticipating market approval for cultured meat and are working to produce it in acceptable textural conditions and in larger quantities. Upside Foods is one of them, supported by American billionaires without having produced yet and without being authorized by the American government. The CEO of Upside Foods knows that regulators are looking into the matter, a good sign, he says.
Everyone wants to believe that the Singaporean decision to allow Eat Just to sell its cellular chicken in the City-State and the success of the operation mark the beginning of a new era, even if the company’s CEO acknowledges the difficulty of making the business profitable.
Other innovations are expected, the Finnish businessman Pasi Vainikka intends to create Solein, a protein obtained by the action of microbes fed with CO2, water and electricity and then dehydrated to be processed in 3D. A factory is planned and his Solein will soon be used for Mars missions.
Source : Le Monde