Meat doesn’t grow on trees: How novel technologies are disrupting the meat industry

03 May 2019

A meatless revolution has started, as novel technologies and disruptive innovations impact the traditional meat sector. So what does this mean for a 7 trillion dollar industry?

An article by FutureBridge, official partner of Food Innovate 2019.

A meatless revolution has started, as novel technologies and disruptive innovations impact the traditional meat sector. So what does this mean for a 7 trillion dollar industry?

From plant-based and insect proteins to cultured meat, alternative proteins have truly rattled the meat industry. With increased media attention around the unsustainable and environmentally damaging effects of the animal sector forward-thinking start-ups, investors and scientists are challenging the future of traditional meat. This revolution could disrupt the entire industry and make slaughterhouses a thing of the past.

The question has now shifted from ‘if’ to ‘when’ the availability of alternative proteins will start to significantly impact the meat industry and what are the implications?

How do we feed future generations?

The challenge is clear, how can we feed the world’s growing population expected to reach more than 9.1 billion by 2050. To feed this larger population, food production must increase by 70%. With meat consumption showing no sign of slowing down and the unlikely event that society will become 100% vegetarian in the coming years, the search for sustainable alternatives to meat is needed before we reach crisis point. The world’s population of 7.5 billion is already pushing against the limits of the planet's resources.

Feeding a growing population is only part of the problem as we need to consider the environmental impacts. The traditional meat sector uses 30 per cent of the planet’s surface for livestock contributing to high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, fresh water shortages, loss of biodiversity and deforestation. There are increasing health concerns about the amount of traditional meat in our diets which is leading to a reduced consumption of meat. This, coupled with proven links to diabetes and some cancers means more consumers are actively seeking alternatives.

Overall, these growing concerns beg the question of how society will sustainably feed future generations, and meatless companies are looking to fill the gap.

‘Butchering’ a traditional industry

Start-ups are reinventing the industry with new breakthrough food technology, allowing for the production of ‘bloody’ meatless burgers and cell-based steaks that closely resemble in taste and texture traditional meat. These products are no longer targeting vegan and vegetarian consumers, but the mass market, including the die-hard meat eaters who are opening up to the idea of meatless meat that tastes like meat.

Recently, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat launched 2.0 versions of their plant-based burgers. Impossible Burger 2.0 was the undisputed winner at this year’s CES technology show in Las Vegas where it first launched its newly formulated burger. Impossible Food’s new recipe swaps wheat protein for soy protein as the blend works better with potato proteins to provide an overall meatier texture. Additionally, the nutritional profile has shown a significant upgrade with reduced calories, salt and fat and an increase the protein quality. Impossible Foods will continue pushing boundaries in the plant-based space as CEO, Pat Brown told cnet; “Unlike the cow, we get better at making meat every single day.”

Around the same time Impossible Foods launched their new burger, Beyond Burger 2.0 was rolled out across the U.S. This new recipe uses a novel plant-based protein blend including peas, brown rice and mung beans. This second edition plant-based burger is now meatier and juicier as a result of coconut oil and beet ingredient inclusions. The new burger is also lower in saturated fat, kosher-certified, and, just like the original patty, is free of gluten, soy, and genetically modified ingredients.

In the cultured meat space, disruptive start-ups such as Aleph Farms and BlueNalu are working to create the meat of the future. The Israeli start-up, Aleph Farms, has developed the first prototype cell-based steak which is considered the holy-grail in the cultured meat industry. This breakthrough has established a new benchmark in lab-cultured meat as it is said to have obtained a true texture and structure of beef muscle tissue steak, as well as flavor and shape.

Based in San Diego, California, BlueNalu is one of the main leaders of developments in the cellular aquaculture space. “Cellular aquaculture” involves the isolation of living cells from fish tissue, placing this into culture media for proliferation and then assembling into fresh or frozen seafood products. BluNalu highlights that it will carry out this process without any genetic manipulation. They will continue their research in the seafood substitute in-house and in partnerships with universities and other research institutes to achieve their long-term research objectives.

Funding new meat is big business

As the market widens its consumer reach, companies which have become the leaders in this field have attracted significant investment; Impossible Foods attracted 506 million dollars of funding since its foundation in 2011. Beyond Meat received 103.9 million dollars and Memphis Meats, which develops laboratory meat, received 19.9 million dollars. Even Bill Gates and Richard Branson, the most influential and successful business people of our time, are backing the meat substitute space.

Source: Crunchbase

Making that shift from the bloodied slaughterhouses to the sterile labs

While it may be difficult for some established players in the meat industry to invest in a currently small scale, high cost technology sector, it’s time to start showing interest in their changing industry.

Both Tyson Foods and Cargill have invested in the cultured meat company Memphis Meats & Beyond Meat, joining Gates & Branson. Following this strategic shift, Tom Hayes, the president and CEO of Tyson Foods, said: “It's another step toward giving today's consumers what they want and feeding tomorrow's consumers sustainably for years to come."

What we are seeing in the meat industry might soon be compared to other traditional industries that were hit by disruptive technologies and consumer behaviors in the past; from Kodak failing to invest in the digital camera developments to Blockbuster passing on “online streaming”. Both filed for bankruptcy soon after. Could we see the fall of an established meat company due to their snubbing of meat substitutes?

The biggest challenge for change…

Overall there are many positives toward alternative proteins application but it does come with significant setbacks. One of which is its high investment costs and the ability to scale to compete on the main stage. The world’s first clean meat burger in 2013 cost $330,000 to produce. This has reduced considerably closing in or around $11 a pound (about €20 a kilogram), but there is still some way to go with the retail price of a pound of ground beef coming in at $3.73. Bruce Friedrich, the CEO and co-founder of The Good Food Institute, predicts clean-meat products will be available at a high price within two to three years, and he believes they will be cost-competitive within 10 years.

As well as cost and scale, the taste of a food is what will make it succeed. Consumers, especially the meat fanatics, are more likely to move over to meat-substitute side once it resembles in taste and texture.

Once these challenges are overcome, the message put forward to the meat industry is; If you can make something that tastes exactly like meat but is more cost effective and ethically friendly, why bother running a farm or a slaughterhouse?

If you’re looking to gain a greater understanding of the developments and emerging ecosystems around plant-based “meat” and clean meat then contact one of our experts Sarah Browner on