Farmers don't fret about fake meat, just fake labels

Why farmers fear fake meat activists more than fake meat

Agribusiness
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Livestock producers say they've got more to worry about than the rapid growth in fake meat products in restaurants and supermarkets.

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Livestock producers do not appear greatly worried about a threat from imitation meat made from plant protein, despite the rapid growth in "fake" products ranging from bacon to beef burgers now available in restaurants and supermarkets.

Nor are they, yet, giving much thought to the prospect of cultured or laboratory-made meats muscling onto the food scene.

However, farmers are furious the fashionable man-made meat lines, which mimic cooked animal protein's taste and smell - even bleeding as they sizzle on the griller - are allowed to be marketed with references to the word "meat".

Producers are also fired up about what they see as a misleading and hypocritical vegetarian agenda to champion non-livestock-based foods as healthier and better for the planet.

Meat and milk made from soybeans and peas are not the same as the real thing, and shouldn't be marketed as if they are - Paul Richards, Rouchelle Murray Greys

Paul Richards

Paul Richards

Alternative plant-sourced meat, milk and cheese lines are frequently promoted as more sustainable, creating fewer carbon emissions and using less water than real livestock production and processing systems.

"I don't lie awake at night worrying about fake meat, but it's hard to swallow the idea something so highly processed with so many added flavours and ingredients is being talked about as a naturally good alternative to meat," said NSW Hunter Valley, Murray Grey breeder, Paul Richards.

"In my mind, those genetically modified soybean crops in America aren't exactly environmentally-friendly, or a picture of biodiversity."

Plant-based fake meats like the Beyond Meat burger sold in Australian supermarkets, or the celebrated Impossible Burger from San Francisco's Impossible Foods, are made from soybean protein concentrate, soy leghemoglobin and soy-protein isolate, coconut oil and a host of other ingredients such as potato, methylcellulose, yeast extract and cultured dextrose.

The Impossible Burger's blood characteristic is genetically engineered by adding soy protein to genetically engineered yeast.

"Meat and milk made from soybeans and peas are not the same as the real thing, and shouldn't be marketed as if they are," said Mr Richards, from McCully's Gap, near Muswellbrook.

Similar views were shared by Australia's Santa Gertrudis Breeders' Association general manager, Chris Todd, also frustrated the vegan food message appeared to attract increased attention despite catering for a minority of consumer tastes.

Twisted reasoning

"It's ironic there's such a big hullabaloo about GM crops, yet there's so much positive publicity about products made in such unnatural circumstances," he said.

"Lab meat worries me, too.

"People seem to think it's okay if the world starts eating cultured meat made in a laboratory from animal cells, while at the same time there's so much anger about GM plants and food additives in the food chain."

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The observations by Mr Todd and Mr Richards were among a host of similar responses to a straw poll of livestock breeders and industry representatives at the recent AgQuip field days, where imitation steaks, burgers and sausages were notably absent from catering menus offered to the farm sector crowds.

Santa Gertrudis Breeders' Association general manager, Chris Todd, samples a real piece of beef at AgQuip field days.

Santa Gertrudis Breeders' Association general manager, Chris Todd, samples a real piece of beef at AgQuip field days.

"I doubt the market for a real beef burger or a good steak will ever disappear," Mr Todd said.

"I think lab meats and vegetable protein products pretending to be meat are just a fad and will only have a minority market appeal.

"But we do have to get out there on the front foot and sell the real beef story.

"We've got a beautiful, natural product and should be talking about it."

People who enjoy eating red meat shouldn't feel uncomfortable or defensive about it. - Don Mackay, Red Meat Advisory Council

Red Meat Advisory Council chairman, Don Mackay, agreed wholeheartedly.

"We must emphasise what the meat industry is delivering - a simple, natural, quality tasting food made from sunshine and grass which doesn't mimic anything," he said.

Don Mackay

Don Mackay

"Our focus should be on educating consumers about red meat's eating and production qualities.

"People who enjoy eating red meat shouldn't feel uncomfortable or defensive about it."

But while agreeing there must be truth in product labelling, he warned, "trying to denigrate the competition won't work".

"More consumers mix their food choices these days, including trying vegetarian meals, but in reality the bleeding edge vegan movement is very small and the public strongly trusts what livestock farmers produce," he said.

No competition worries

However, NSW Charolais Society secretary and Coonabarabran producer, Caitlin Warner, said although competition from fake meat was "not on our radar" at present, producers were annoyed they were often targeted by the meat-free lobby or food promoters wanting to point score on environmental credentials.

"Activists seem to think it's fair to blame red meat for climate change and anything else in the news at the time.

Caitlin Warner

Caitlin Warner

"We don't hear about all the energy and resources required to produce man-made alternatives - or what really goes into them."

There's something perverse about bee-free honey, nut milk, or meatless beef - they're not reflecting the real food production story - Todd Heyman, Droughtmaster Australia

Droughtmaster Australia president, Todd Heyman, felt the cost of making lab meat too expensive to make it a threat to beef production.

Tell meat's good story

However, he hoped the farm sector would unite to better articulate real meat's good story and counter the hype around new-age foods manufactured to appeal to a generation of consumers at risk of losing touch with reality.

Todd Heyman

Todd Heyman

"There's something perverse about bee-free honey, nut milk, or meatless beef - they're certainly not reflecting the real food production story," said Mr Heyman, from Seelands in the northern NSW's Clarence Valley.

"My cattle enjoy a better life than I do."

Walcha beef and lamb producer, Sonia O'Keefe, acknowledged consumer habits frequently changed and many farmers were unaware of potential challenges ahead.

"Farming will have to adapt, but meat substitutes should also be clearly and correctly labelled," said Ms O'Keefe, the association's past rural affairs committee chairman.

"We can't have these products winning space in the supermarket meat cabinets by stealth."

Sonia O'Keefe

Sonia O'Keefe

RMAC's Mr Mackay said farmers would be wise to recognise many of fake meat's biggest investors were now real meat processors such US giants, Cargill, Tyson Foods and Conagra, or mainstream food names like Nestle and McDonalds.

"It may initially be a costly product development exercise, but if I was running Tyson Foods - America's biggest meat processor - of course I'd be getting into plant-based protein offerings, as well," he said.

We're likely to see new markets open up for traditional animal protein blended with cultured (lab) meats or vegetable protein. - Don Mackay

"We in the red meat industry don't have to be frothing at the mouth about these new products because we have products which consumers still want and will pay extra for.

Blended products

"To feed the world we're likely to see new markets open up for traditional animal protein blended with cultured (lab) meats or vegetable protein.

"There's nothing wrong with that."

Mr Mackay said the wool industry failed to halt the rise of synthetics in the 1960s and the dairy industry had to accept competition from margarine in the 1970s.

Both actually retained and built on their premium product credentials, and also adapted to reach more consumers by embracing blending as normal.

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The story Farmers don't fret about fake meat, just fake labels first appeared on Farm Online.

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