Beyond Meat burger patties made from plant-based substitutes for meat sit next to ground beef packages. Photo: Angela Weiss / AFP

The arrival of plant-based meat products has created mass interest in the United States, the UK and in some parts of Europe.

The success of Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and Greggs in the UK has demonstrated consumer demand and has excited consumers.

Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have replicated ground beef and sausage and Impossible Foods has just announced plant-based pork. Others are introducing plant-based chicken and seafood.

Most of the swirl surrounding the launch of these products has centered on their healthfulness and whether they are truly “vegan” or Kosher/Halal.  For example, vegans won’t buy Burger King’s Impossible Whopper (a hamburger-like sandwich featured at the fast-food chain) because the plant-based burgers are cooked in the same automated grills as are their regular meat products. But these complaints have barely impacted the fast-food chain whose sales have increased dramatically thanks to plant-based meat.

The plant-based meat, poultry and fish industry is growing rapidly and established mass meat companies are starting to develop their own products or make alliances with successful plant-based producers.  Huge Tyson Foods in the United States has introduced a plant product line (called Raised and Rooted®) which features both purely plant-based and hybrid products that combine plant protein and animal products. Hybrid products have, of course, been around for decades, typically using soy as a filler to extend meat products, but the new Tyson approach uses a blend where the plant component tastes like the meat it replaces.

The real challenge for plant-based meats, poultry and fish is product cost. Today the cost is quite high compared to average quality meats in the marketplace. In the long run, for mass-market success, the price of plant-based meats has to be priced below animal products.  Impossible Foods, which just announced a ground pork and sausage product series, has its eye on China as a major market. It faces multiple obstacles: product price, product availability (it is a very big market and Impossible stumbled when it introduced its hamburger for fast food outlets because it could not meet demand) and the risk of competitors who try to copy its formulas.

Impossible meats uses a patented ingredient called Heme which is a soy leghemoglobin. There are 17 Impossible Food patents centered around the following claim: “Food products containing highly conjugated heterocyclic rings complexed to an iron ion and one or more flavor precursors, and using such food products to modulate the flavor and/or aroma profile of other foods. The food products can be prepared in various ways and can be formulated to be free of animal products.”

Impossible will need to defend its patents and secure its secrets to be successful as the market expands.

If the obstacles are successfully overcome, plant-based products offer great business opportunities that also can have a national security impact.

The United States has a distinct advantage in becoming the center of global food supply of pseudo-meats based on plant-based products. Impossible Foods hamburger’s main ingredient is soy protein concentrate. The United States is the world’s largest producer of soybeans with an output of 119.52 million metric tons. The next two large producers are Brazil at 112 million metric tons and Argentina with 54 million metric tons. China, by contrast, the fourth-largest producer has an output of only 14 million metric tons. Today China uses 73.87 million metric tons of soybeans, meaning that nearly 60 million metric tons of soybeans are imported. If low-cost plant-based meats, especially plant-based pork, takes off in China, the US is in an extremely strong position to sell to China, boosting US agriculture.

The US also is a major exporter of pork and pork products with exports of $4.6 billion. China is a very fast-growing importer of pork and pork products, now at $2.1 billion. (Japan is nearly double China in pork imports at $4.4 billion annually. Other Asian countries also import pork, with South Korea slightly below China at $1.7 billion.)  China could easily import far more if the price was attractive, particularly for ground pork.

The US is looking for ways to expand its export market in Asia, and particularly in China. Because there is so much room for growth in the export of meat or meat-like products, the US could use its new plant-based pork products advantageously. US total exports of agricultural products to China totaled $9.3 billion in 2018, America’s 4th largest agricultural export market. Leading US export categories include: soybeans ($3.1 billion), cotton ($924 million), hides & skins ($607 million), pork & pork products ($571 million), and coarse grains (ex. corn) ($530 million).  Good tasting plant-based pork products could have a major export impact for the US in China and elsewhere in Asia.

If the market develops and plant-based US-made products are successful in Asia, the growth of US exports could help lower the trade tensions between the US and China, expand American agriculture and agriculture-linked manufacturing exports, create thousands of American jobs, and help improve US political relations with China. In that sense, plant-based meats, especially faux-pork, could be a plus for US national security.

Leave a comment