The businesses winning from our appetite for 'fake food'

16 July 2019

Agriculture minister senator Bridget McKenzie has branded it "fake food" but meat alternatives are growing in popularity and meat eaters are the target market.

The minister lashed out on Twitter at Coles, which started stocking New Zealand meat alternative Sunfed this month offering 'chicken-free chicken' and soon to be launched 'bull-free beef' made from pea protein.

"Not happy with latest fake food push," she tweeted. "Chicken-free chicken is not chicken, it's reconstituted peas. We need to protect our farmers."

The entrepreneur

Sunfed founder Shama Sukul Lee is nonplussed by the criticism and said her core customers are "flexitarians" who eat both meat and products that resemble it.

"These are consumers who love the taste of meat but for a very long time they didn't have any option but all of a sudden there is an option in front of them," she said. "Vegans and vegetarians will buy the product but the larger base is the flexitarian market. Let's be honest meat tastes f---ing delicious but for a very long time, there was no other option. Meat alternatives have been around for a while but they weren't very good."

Ms Lee is circumspect about the volumes of Sunfed product she is selling in Australia but the start-up raised $9.3 million last year to fuel its global expansion from investors including Australian venture capital firm Blackbird Ventures and Chris Hadley, head of Quadrant Private Equity.

"It is flying off the shelves," she said. "It has exceeded all our projections and expectations".

The supermarket

A spokesperson for Coles said Sunfed's Chicken Free Chicken is already one of the most popular products in its meat alternative range, which also includes Beyond Meat and Alternative Meat Co products – which have had "double-digit growth" week-on-week over the past month.

"Our customers are becoming more and more interested in plant-based foods, but people are not so much switching to a full vegetarian diet – they're substituting veggie options a couple of times a week," the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson said this shift is part of a global trend, with overseas research finding 34 per cent of consumers now have meat-reduced or meat-free diets.

The potential in the sector has been shown by US company Beyond Meat, which went public in May.

Shares in the maker of vegan beef and sausage substitutes have soared rising from its IPO price of $US25 share to as high as $US168 a share.

The startup's 'Beyond Burgers' have no cholesterol and 5 grams of saturated fat and are made of pea protein and beet juice, which makes them "bleed" when cooked.

Its backers include Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and actor Leonardo DiCaprio; the start-up is valued at nearly $US9 billion.

However, in 2018 Beyond Meat's revenue was less than $US88 million and it recorded a loss of $US30 million.

The future

Investors are not looking at the present but rather to the future and locally Australian Plant Proteins announced last week it has secured $20 million to begin the fitout of a plant protein manufacturing facility.

Plant protein is the main raw material used in making fake meat alternatives and co-founder and director of the EAT Group, which founded APP, Brendan McKeegan, said at peak capacity the facility will be capable of producing 5000 tonnes of plant protein extract every year.

"From a consumer perspective, we are seeing a rise in sustainable protein consumption," McKeegan says. "This is how meat alternative is gaining traction, it is not changing our core habits, we are still consuming hamburgers but can you choose something that doesn't have animal protein it has plant protein. If the taste profile and texture is similar, then that is a subtle change. We see this as not a fad; it is a growing consumption trend."

Fast-food billionaire Jack Cowin is also investing in the sector, working with the CSIRO to create a meat alternative that he expects to launch at the end of the year.

"In 2050, 30 years from now we'll have 10 billion people and the existing food production system cannot feed that many people so something has to change," the founder of Hungry Jack's and chair of Domino's says. "The cow's conversion – if you have a kilo of beef what you have to feed that cow is a form of grain and water consumption – is very, very inefficient."

Cowin says with 10 per cent of the population in Australia vegetarian or vegan and 90 per cent 'flexitarian', the real market is attracting that 90 per cent.

"I don't think the beef business will go out of business but it will likely become more costly," he says.

"The cow is not an efficient producer of protein; turning protein from plants is a more efficient way to do it and probably more cost effective."

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