Meat, Mete or Meet?
Part One : The Disruption
Perhaps you’ve pondered what should feasibly be in a sausage.
Or whether a mixture of beetroot, gluten, coconut and mushrooms made into long strands should be called mince. Well, what about fruit mince pies?
Maybe you are asking yourself whether 'meat' is the right word to describe animal cells propagated in a petri dish.
Or wondered : why do we eat beef and pork and not cow and pig?
Parlez Vous Franglais?
The meat (from the Old English mete) naming conventions we use today in modern English come from the Norman invasion of The British Isles by William The Conqueror in 1066.
The Normans spoke French. Their newly conquered subjects spoke Old English.
That led to some odd language transformations. Over time, the Normans bequeathed more than 10,000 words to English, and since they were the ruling class, most of these referred to posh topics such as nobility, law and high living—most notably, cuisine (banquet, herb, roast, biscuit).
So while humble farmers kept calling their animals cows, swine, sheep, and deer, once those animals were put on a fancy plate their names became French. The modern-day French words for these meats: boeuf, porc, mouton, and venison. No doubt it would have caused some ethnic tension between the locals and the new push.
So, here we are a millennium later in the grip of a global food-tech revolution.
With red meat being a bit 'on the nose' of late due to consumer concerns about health, animal welfare and the environment, alternative proteins are at the fore.
And names and words are up for discussion again.
Analogue or Digital?
There is nothing new about plant based meat analogues. And during their commercial lives, the meat-less feature was always the star of the show.
The earliest known reference to tofu appears in Chinese records from 965 . Living a thrifty life was considered a noble virtue, and tofu subbed in for meat was a good way to get there.
For Medieval chefs in Western Europe, the 3 animal product free days per week plus 4o during Lent put a serious handbrake on their reportoire.
A 1430 recipe book instructs chefs to fill empty egg shells with a mixture of almond-milk based jelly and a crunchy almond center, dyed yellow with saffron and ginger.
In the 1890s, the combination of dodgy meat packing practices and religious conviction spurred US entrepreneur John Kellogg (brother of corn flake magnate Will Kellogg) to develop and patent some of the first modern meat analogues. They were launched in the US by his Sanitas Nut Food Company. Yep, Sanitarium today.
John Kellogg also spent a lot of time developing an anti-masturbation diet where tasty pleasures like meat, pepper, coffee or tea were off the menu. These foods were thought to be far too arousing. Their consumption would spur all kinds of sexual excess which Kellogg believed led to physical illness and feeble mindedness. I think that is a blog for another day.
Food tech standard issue textured vegetable protein (TVP ) was developed in the 1960s by ADM and has been a well used and cost effective highly functional protein boost for a plethora of food types. You’ve most likely been eating plant based protein for years. It’s just that nobody has told you.
Of course in recent times, the concept has been revisited and aggressively optimised with the support of investors like Gates and Branson; and now with BYND's IPO, the American public.
Anything from extrusion, 3D printing and shear cell technology has been employed, with both food technologists and fluid dynamics experts collaborating to deliver a palatable product. Burger King's Impossible Whopper (0% meat) is slated to launch nationally in the US by end 2019.
Why do we develop 'vegetable meat', 'substitutes for flesh food' or 'Beyond Meat' today?
Frugality, illness, nutrition, anti-onanism, food safety, religious beliefs and wartime scarcity were the reasons in times past.
These days it is all about population growth, concerns for our natural resources, the environment, animal welfare and affordability that drives us to seek alternatives.
One of the most provocative new developments is cultured meat. Not yet scaled, it’s grown from stem cells taken from a live animal without the need for slaughter. It starts with self-renewing cells, such as embryonic stem cells, from animal tissue. Meat is made by culturing and multiplying those cells in a nutrient mix in a bioreactor. One of the biggest technical obstacles is choosing the nutrient mix that encourages muscle cells to grow into muscle fibres. Fetal bovine serum, sourced from cow fetuses looks to be the stuff for the job. But it’s exy and at odds with the sustainability and ethical advantages meant to underpin the offering. Unsurprisingly, the race is on to find an alternate nutrient mix that performs at parity.
Without a doubt, this technology has opportunities to grow and process products for use in cellular agriculture. For example, Tyson Foods and Cargill Meat Solutions, two of the biggest meat producers in the U.S., have made investments in this new future.
In fact, they tell us:
"If anyone can produce alternative products tasting like meat and sausages, it would be us”.
In paddock-free South East Asia, it's tipped to be big business, with significant financial incentives offered as part of a push to make Singapore a global food tech investment hub .
Nuts Don’t Have Nipples.
So what do these new developments mean for what we can, or should call these products?
Other parts of the food industry have already been down the track of controlling names of products. They have taken advantage of the relatively newly created intellectual property around geographical indications (GI); think sparkling wine from Champagne, Parma ham and Greek feta cheese. Or even Scotch beef .
Can, or should, this type of thinking work with non-specific terminology around 'meat'?
In April last year, France amended its Agriculture Bill to prohibit any product that is largely based on non-animal ingredients from being labelled like a traditional animal product. So product names such as “vegetable steak”, “soy sausage”, or “bacon-flavoured strips” are banned.
The US dairy lobby have been arguing for the word “milk” to be used only for dairy derived products for over 20 years. But plant milk producers scored a key victory last August. The US Court of Appeals ruled that calling almond milk “milk” is not deceptive. Consumers are pretty clear about what almond milk is and they are choosing it because it is not dairy – not because of a mistaken belief that it is.
Untold time, money and resources are still committed to this cause. But so what?
Even if they win the word war, how are they better meeting consumer needs?
Those in Champagne and Parma who have won their valuable GI rights have locked themselves into using the same traditional techniques and are allowed to make only the same traditional products so they themselves can use the name. They cannot make any changes. They cannot innovate and they cannot improve. Parma hamstrung! This kind of anachronistic cage is not necessarily good for all food sectors - or consumers and producers.
So in light of this new protein landscape, where does that leave Australia's ~$21 billion red meat industry?
I'll be posting Meat, Mete or Meet? Part Two : The Ferrari next week ;-)