There’s a stealth competitor stealing space at the grocery meat counter—and in the packaged meal freezer, on menus at restaurants across the country and on consumers’ plates. No, it’s not beef or chicken, although they are competing heavily. It’s alternative, plant-based and, potentially, lab-grown animal cellular proteins.
U.S. sales of plant-based proteins totaled $553 million in 2012, according to Mintel, a market research group. In just five years, plant-based protein sales have jumped to $670 million in the U.S. in 2017. Compare that to the $22 billion U.S. pork industry, and there is a growing cause for concern.
The alternative protein segment “is something we are well aware of and something we are focused on understanding—especially the composition of the product,” says Jarrod Sutton, vice president, domestic marketing for the National Pork Board (NPB). Sutton says the questions he and others at NPB are trying to answer include, “What’s in it, how does it become processed into a consumable good, what’s the nutritional content and the carbon footprint?”
While it’s too early to know what these new proteins will do to pork’s market share of the plate, Sutton says you only need to look at the dairy industry and the number of dairy-like items in the grocery case to see the potential for lost market share. To thwart that, NPB is evaluating many avenues of the new segment to keep pork in a competitive position alongside these new competitors.
“There is no doubt the way those products like Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger are being merchandized—they’re targeting meat eaters, not non-meat eaters,” Sutton says. “And they are certainly very public about their efforts to erode the business of existing protein suppliers.”
Who Oversees and Regulates?
Once thought to be light years away from reality, technology has accelerated the timeline for lab meat production. While, plant-based proteins and protein blends are already on the market, the first lab-grown meat, or protein produced from animal cells without an actual animal, could very well be in restaurants by the end of this year.
While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and USDA debate about who will regulate this new food system, traditional protein industry groups are researching and responding to the challengers.
On Aug. 23, the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) and Memphis Meats sent a letter to President Donald Trump asking for a meeting with government and industry stakeholders to begin sorting out the regulatory process of this new class of proteins.
“The U.S. is currently the world leader in protein production, including cell-based meats. But we will not maintain that position without regulatory clarity,” the groups say. “After pre-market safety has been established with FDA, USDA should regulate cell-based meat and poultry products, as it does with all other meat and poultry products, applying relevant findings from FDA’s safety evaluation to ensure products are safe, wholesome and properly labeled.”
How Does “Fake Meat” Taste?
Sutton, who has sampled the Impossible Burger and Beyond Sausage at a Whole Foods in Boulder, Colo., says the taste is meat-like. “They have a ways to go in terms of texture,” he says. “The flavor I’d say was close, just because they put [on] a lot of sauces and condiments.”
A consumer trend that might be a win for meat producers is a move toward “clean” labels—ingredients people can pronounce and understand. “When you see animal protein products being merchandized as the ‘original’ protein and 100% pork, those claims are resonating with consumers and fall in line with this clean label imperative,” Sutton says.
And while burgers seem to be the first type of alternative protein products coming to market, sausage and bratwurst items can’t be too far behind.
“What they are touting as far as nutritional value and the environmental impact, I don’t know of anybody who has done the research to really evaluate that yet,” Sutton says.
Battle of Sustainability Claims
While developers of alternative proteins say they can make protein without any impact on the animal, there is a cost associated with industrial production. Arguments are being made on all sides.
Cell-based meat products are meat produced from animal cells in cell culture. “They are an ‘and,’ not an ‘or,’ solution, and the latest in a long history of innovation in American agriculture,” says the joint letter from NAMI and Memphis Meats.
“This good food movement is not a trend, it’s the reality of what our new customer—mainly the millennial—is expecting of us,” says Brett Kaysen, assistant vice president of sustainability for NPB. “There’s no doubt alternative proteins are going to play the sustainability card. It’s the cost of doing business today.”
But pork producers also have a sustainability case to promote. New research from NPB shows pork producers have made overall continuous improvement in sustainability and environmental stewardship from 1960 to 2015 based on per pound of live weight of pigs produced.
More details are to come from the NPB’s report, Kaysen says. “It’s a good thing that [consumers] are interested in what they’re putting in their bodies. But you and I both know, they’re so far removed from the general production practices of how it happens,” he adds. “We’ve got to be smart about how we educate, why what they’re eating every day is safe and nutritious, and why they should feel good about it. We have to build trust.”
As a scientist, Kaysen says he’s watching closely what ingredients are going into alternative protein products and how they will be identified on the product label.
“We are getting ahead of the power curve and doing some research in the space of comparing nutrient value and nutrient density value of a fake meat versus pork, because there are still a lot of unknowns,” Kaysen says. “But we also can’t bury our heads in the sand as producers and say, ‘That’ll never work.’ That’s not a good strategy.”
The Next Phase of We Care
What’s on the horizon for the We Care program? Bill Evan, CEO of the National Pork Board, told Farm Journal’s PORK earlier this year that it’s time for the industry to “challenge ourselves on metrics and continuous improvement.
Ten years ago, the We Care initiative, a joint effort from the National Pork Board, National Pork Producers Council and state organizations representing farmers, began to offer a proactive message about responsible production practices in all areas of farming and to continuously evaluate and improve production methods.
The goal was to encourage farmers and employees to understand and use best practices in raising animals. Secondly, this offered an assurance to the public that as an industry, farmers were committed to responsible and ethical animal production. As part of that effort, programs such as Pork Quality Assurance Plus (PQA Plus) and Transport Quality Assurance (TQA) offered producers continual education to support a safe, high-quality pork supply.
But at this 10-year mark, the We Care program is poised for change, say leaders at the National Pork Board.
“It’s all about communication. I really think we’re at a point in pig farming and pork as a food that we have to continue to beat the drum louder and longer,” says Brett Kaysen, assistant vice president of sustainability for the National Pork Board.