Interview

“The meat industry will end up like Kodak if they don’t change”

Thanks to Tönnies: Ulrika Brandt, plant-based-food market expert at ProVeg, believes that meat alternatives will continue their unstoppable rise.

The full article was published in German and is available on the WirtschaftsWoche website.

WirtschaftsWoche: Horrible working conditions in slaughterhouses, the coronavirus outbreak, infected chops – the meat industry is under fire. Is this evident on the supermarket shelves? [For readers outside Germany, one of Germany’s largest meat manufacturers, Tönnies, had to shut down a slaughterhouse due to a massive coronavirus outbreak back in June, in which more than 1,500 people were infected.]

Ulrika Brandt: Yes, the plant-based market is growing rapidly. According to Nielsen’s market researchers, the demand for plant-based products in the USA skyrocketed, with a 268% increase in March and April, with oat milk even surpassing 400% growth. On the other hand, the demand for animal-based meat only increased by 40%. The same is true for German manufacturers.

All due to corona?

Even before the corona pandemic, plant-based products dominated the animal-alternatives sector in terms of growth rates. Several factors play into this: the visible effects of climate change, reports on the enormous water and land usage for meat and milk production, unethical welfare conditions for animals, as well as a growing awareness about health. The pandemic has made the connection between factory farming and zoonoses clear to the general public for the first time. Zoonoses are diseases such as COVID-19 which can be transmitted from animals to humans.

…which seem to mainly affect Asian markets, where animals are slaughtered on site.

No, this is not only the case for far-away live-animal markets. This is also the case with factory farming, which is designed to keep animals as close together as possible. Again, this is also the case in Germany. The Spanish flu also originated this way and killed nearly 50 million people in 1918. It was transmitted from pigs to humans. 75% of all novel infectious diseases are of animal origin.

This doesn’t happen with plant-based products?

The production of plant-based or cultivated meat alternatives is far safer. It’s pretty straightforward: no animal-based meat means no danger of zoonoses.

But it’s a long way from this realization to quitting meat consumption.

According to a recent study by Forsa, 55% of Germans want to consume less meat in order to live healthier, more climate friendly, and sustainably. Many people also mentioned animal welfare as an important factor. Only by letting go of long-held habits, can an actual shift in the mindset take place,and, of course, this is generally not easy.

And it requires consumers to accept alternative products.

Absolutely! Taste is the name of the game, followed by texture and mouthfeel, with two other key factors being price and the naturalness of ingredients. All of these points are vital in order for a product to be successful in the market in the long-term. Nowadays, there are very good meat alternatives available. However, products which taste horrific still make it to the supermarket shelves.

Are meat alternatives really already able to make it beyond the niche of organic supermarkets?

The plant-based meat market will more than double in size within the next five years – in 2019 the global market volume was already valued at about $12.1 billion. In 2025, it’s predicted to soar to nearly $28 billion. A striking example of the products’ mainstream status are last year’s Oscar Awards, where mainly vegan dishes were served. Joaquin Phoenix, who won the Oscar for best actor in a leading role for Joker, took a stand on this.

Did meat eaters complain?

I don’t think so. They had a variety and wide selection of food, including toasted cauliflower toast, agrodolce shallots, golden raisins and sumac, and sweet potato tempura with mint cilantro aioli, all of which are extremely delicious.

But are meat alternatives such as burgers and mince really healthy? Often you hear that they contain several unhealthy additives?

Unfortunately, a lot of rumors and unscientific opinions are being spread. There is no scientific study behind this statement. We always advise food manufacturers to pay attention to clean-label ingredients. This includes using as few and as natural ingredients as possible. In general, these products have many advantages in comparison to animal-based meat.

For example?

They contain plant-based proteins with high nutritional value, are usually lower in fat, and have less saturated fat. Cholesterol, which is typically part of animal-based meat, is not found in any plant foods. Unlike their animal counterparts, they also contain essential fiber for our gut health. And they don’t cause cancer.

“Roman gladiators were vegetarians”

That should be given though.

For sure, but it’s not the case for animal-based meat. The World Health Organization has already classified processed meat as a group-one carcinogen in 2015. This means that there is sufficient evidence from epidemiologic studies that bacon, sausages, and cold cuts cause cancer. Red meat such as beef, veal, lamb, and pork have been classified as group 2A, meaning that these foods are likely to cause cancer.

But one is used to hearing that meat makes you strong.

It is a long-held bias that animal proteins from meat and milk are crucial for outstanding physical performance or strength. In fact, the opposite is the case. They have a hyperacidic effect and fuel inflammation. Did you know that gladiators in ancient Rome were vegetarians? By the way, plant-based products would need a large-scale image campaign like the ones run for decades by the meat and dairy industry – supported by EU funds – in order to achieve marketing parity with the animal-based sector.

Do you mean campaigns like ‘Die Milch macht’s!’ (‘Milk does it’)?

Yes, that was the slogan of the campaign that ran in the 1980s. Even before, from the 1950s until now, the dairy industry has invested millions to sell more milk, suggesting that it is healthy and best to drink every day.

And that’s wrong?

Besides animal fats, sugar, and allergens, cow’s milk contains the critical growth hormone IGF1. Frequent and heavy consumption of IGF1 has been shown to increase the risk of prostate cancer. Renowned nutritional scientists have also stated very clearly that cow’s milk is not essential to our diet. If this were the case, more than two thirds of humanity would not survive, since they cannot drink cow’s milk and remain symptom-free because they lack the enzyme for digesting milk sugar.

Wouldn’t it be clever if manufacturers of plant-based products deliberately set themselves apart from animal-based products, instead of speaking of mince and burgers?

No. Terms such as meat, cheese, and fish are ingrained in our culture. Everyone knows what these products are. If the packaging says ‘100% plant-based’, is ‘like’ Gyros, or uses the V-Label, which is only featured on vegan or vegetarian products, it will be clear to consumers.

Nevertheless, many people are obviously still quite reluctant to move to plant-based eating. According to a survey conducted by the German National Academy of Science and Engineering and the Körber-Stiftung foundation, only about a quarter of participants can imagine lab-meat as an alternative.

This refers to the topic of cultured meat. Most consumers don’t really know much about this yet. If meat developed from cell cultures is referred to as lab meat and you know it’s produced in a kind of brewing kettle, as in the case of beer brewing, of course it evokes negative associations. Manufacturers are aware that they have to communicate advantages in advance. It will also take some time for these products to be launched on the market, but current developments are promising.

But isn’t it possible that consumers will fall back into old habits after the corona pandemic – buying cheap meat for their BBQs like nothing happened?

No, because the meat industry’s major problems remain: the accelerating climate crisis, combined with the capital market’s pressure on companies to position themselves more sustainably. Then, there is the realization that we can’t feed the growing global population the way we have been producing meat and dairy products. As such, the management-consulting firm Kearney expects that, by 2030, plant-based and cultured meat-alternatives will make up 30% of the global meat market.

And what about meat manufacturers?

Meat manufacturers and other food companies that don’t change and don’t join the alternative-protein market will end up like the camera-technology company Kodak – which missed out on the opportunities represented by the digital camera: Sooner or later, they will disappear from the market.

Read the full interview with Ulrika (in German) on the Wirtschafts Woche website, the leading business magazine in Germany.

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