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SXSW Eats: How to sell meat-free ‘meat’ to a billion carnivores

Addie Broyles

The environmental impact of meat production is hard to dispute. Livestock, especially cattle, require an enormous amount of water, feed and land to produce protein that those of us who eat meat often overlook when we bite into that hamburger.

In recent years, we’ve seen a surge of companies making meat substitutes that, unlike protein-rich tofu or tempeh, have the taste and texture of traditional meat or eggs, and in a panel late Sunday afternoon, the leaders of four of the companies — Beyond Meat, Soylent, Hampton Creek Foods and Modern Meadow — converged to talk about the future of this kind of food processing.

Robert Rhinehart’s company, Soylent, raised more than $2 million in a crowdfunding campaign last year to create a liquid (and vegan) meal replacement, and Andras Forgacs’ Modern Meadow is developing techniques for creating leather and meat that are biologically identical to what you’d get from an animal but without the slaughter.

Neither of those products are on the market just yet, but Soylent’s powder, which you mix with water to create a mega nutrient shake, will be available for purchase by summer.

Of all these companies represented at the panel, Beyond Meat has the widest commercial reach today. The company sells eerily meat-like “chicken-free strips” and “beef-free crumbles” at grocers nationwide, including Whole Foods Market, H-E-B and Sprouts.

CEO Ethan Brown said that by heating, cooling and then adding pressure to the primary plant ingredients, including non-GMO pea and soy, they are able to create an ingredient that provides comparable nutritional value, taste and texture as regular meat but with a fraction of the resources.

It takes two minutes to run the Beyond Meat process to make “chicken” strips, compared to six weeks to actually raise a chicken, Brown says.

People say, “this is not a natural form of meat,” Brown said. “But the end game is protein, lipids and trace carbs. If we can assemble that in a way that mimics the fibrous texture of pork, beef and chicken, at the end of the day, that’s meat.”

The Beyond Meat products cost about the same as organic beef or chicken, between $5 and $6 for just less than a pound of “meat,” which led to a bigger discussion about affordabilty, convenience and what it will take to make these products mainstram.

Hampton Creek Foods CEO and founder Josh Tetrick, a self-described “fervent capitalist,” said that as a businessman, he couldn’t back a company that didn’t sell a marketable product that he couldn’t make money on.

“There are lots of innovations in food that don’t make money, but this is an area where there is a lot of money to be made,” he said. Hampton Creek’s egg-like substance “is 48 percent more cost effective than the cheapest, worst-quality eggs you can buy.”

But right now, he’s not selling eggs. With the financial backing of supporters including Bill Gates, Hampton Creek’s debut product is a vegan mayonnaise called Just Mayo, which is also already available in some Whole Foods Markets.

A third of eggs we eat, we don’t experience as eggs, Tetrick says, which is why Hampton Creek is starting in the non-”egg” space with mayo and, in the next year, cookie dough.

“We say, take out the egg, put in a plant and lower the cost,” he says.

When considering the viability of products, Tetrick said he keeps three things in mind: China, India and his dad. The first two are a reminder that unless we find solutions that can be rolled out on a large scale in the biggest markets in the world, we won’t be making very much of an impact at all.

“If we’re just capitalists and starting over, it seems illogical to spend so much money on feed, water and land and inefficient processes to feed our population,” he said.

And the last — his dad — represents the ultimate hurdle: getting the everyday eater to sign on.

“My dad will never ever pay $6 for eggs at a farmers market,” Tetrick said. “Change will only come with (the product) is as convenient and cheap” as the conventional choice.