Gone are the days of pea or soya protein – dubiously coloured, artificially flavoured and pummelled into facsimiles of bacon strips, drumsticks or patties, as unconvincing as they were unappetising.
What’s in a name? Quite a lot, especially when it comes to the future of food production and marketing.
While meat-eating consumers are fast waking up to the negative impact their eating habits are having on the environment – according to a recent Mintel survey, almost a quarter (24%) of British people want to reduce their meat consumption due to concerns over both animal welfare and its ecological cost – in the supermarket, their actions remain fickle. Because when it comes to swapping lifelong tastes for unfamiliar alternatives, it seems the way today’s ‘fake’ meats are marketed will ultimately determine their success.
Because the truth is, there have never been more or better alternatives to traditionally-farmed meat and fish. Gone are the days of pea or soya protein – dubiously coloured, artificially flavoured and pummelled into facsimiles of bacon strips, drumsticks or patties, as unconvincing as they were unappetising. We now live in the age of the Impossible Burger, a plant-based product that has the authentic post-bite bleed, meaty mouthfeel and umami-boosting Maillard reaction required to make it indistinguishable from its beef equivalent. And then there are lab-grown proteins from the likes of New Harvest, Memphis Meats and Finless Foods, which offer diners all the carnivorous delight of devouring flesh without any of the planet-suffocating guilt.
What these brands are allowed to call their products is, however, proving contentious. Earlier this year, the US Cattlemen’s Association petitioned the USDA to mandate that the terms ‘meat’ and ‘beef’ could not be applied to foodstuffs that had not been ‘slaughtered in the traditional manner.’ While no such regulation has yet been passed, their French counterparts have already achieved a similar aim. Under pressure from the country’s farmers, the government has ruled that descriptors such as ‘burger’, ‘steak’, ‘sausage’ or ‘fillet’ cannot be used to market their plant-based replicas.
Context is key...it takes a lot of effort to find dinner party inspiration when holding a tub of ‘amino acid matrix’.
In terms of positioning, this is a serious blow for any firm pushing ‘meat substitutes’. For context is key to overcoming any barriers to consuming these products – when marketed as a substitute, it’s obvious how they should be used, which recipes and occasions are appropriate. It takes a lot of effort to find dinner party inspiration when holding a tub of ‘amino acid matrix’. Encouragingly, British supermarket Sainsbury’s has been quick to embrace this opportunity. It is transforming the way fake meat is sold in-store by becoming the first UK retailer to stock plant protein-based products alongside their animal derived counterparts, rather than siloed in a dedicated vegetarian section. The messaging here sits in clear opposition to those across the water in France and America – ‘meat’ and the language that surrounds the category should not be a protected species.
In fact, such opposition is particularly difficult to justify, given that the meat industry already has a history of misusing language in relation to such phrases as ‘grass fed’ and ‘free range’ as tools to convince consumers their products are more ethical than is often the reality. The industry needs to embrace this new branch of the market and use it as impetus to clean up its own act. Only by proving that they can rear livestock in a sustainable and ethical way will they be able to compete with this new generation of increasingly attractive replacements. Consumer mindsets have already started to shift, and while farmers and the bodies that represent them may be seek to constrain the language used to describe such products, they won't be able to silence the larger conversation.
For more on the trends defining the future of the food industry, explore our dedicated Food and Drink vertical.