Irish firms need to work up an appetite for meat-free food

The food industry got a significant wake-up call last week and one that needs to be absorbed by anyone invested in its future.

Impossible Foods, a company backed by no less than Bill Gates of Microsoft fame, secured a major contract with the fast-food behemoth Burger King.

It has developed a meat-free burger produced using soy protein, potato protein, coconut oil, sunflower oil, and hemp.

It looks, tastes, and feels like a classic burger but has zero meat. The product is being rolled out across a large number of outlets and has already received very positive reviews.

One of those was from a leading American meat lobbyist who has told his members to wake up and smell the coffee.

Companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are being backed by heavyweight investors. The sovereign wealth fund of Singapore, for example, is financing Impossible Foods.

They are doing so for sound commercial reasons and in response to key mega themes coursing through the global food industry.

Climate change, obesity, animal welfare and dietary health are big societal issues that consumers are increasingly exercised about.

Like it or not, these themes will play a major role in determining which foods succeed and fail in the decades ahead. For Ireland, the Impossible burger poses many questions. We have a dairy and meat industry that rightly prides itself on grass-based production systems.

Compared to housed animals on a diet of compound feed, the production of milk and meat using natural resources is an important advantage.

Demand for Irish products is strong in mature markets, but especially in developing Asian markets where meat and dairy are being sought by a burgeoning middle class.

Expanding our dairy and cattle herds in response to such demand is rational but it has to do so while ensuring sustainability in our land resources and adopting best-in-class animal husbandry.

There are many countries around the world that are pumping out milk and meat off systems that are below the standards adopted in Ireland.

In the cut-throat world of market share we must ensure our food production, at farm and factory, is gold standard. The development of plant-based alternatives to dairy and meat should not be shunned by the Irish food industry.

Indeed, it can be argued that meat and milk companies or co-ops are actually protein-producing enterprises. There is no reason why these businesses cannot invest in and develop plant-based food systems that augment their milk and meat strategies.

Some of the leading Irish companies, including Kerry and Glanbia, are already committed to plant-based products and that is likely to expand further in coming years.

Ireland has produced generations of innovative food leaders and established co-ops and companies that have succeeded on world markets.

These assets are needed more than ever to devise strategies that help create opportunity and jobs for decades to come.

Those strategies must encompass foods that have the potential to become mainstream in the short to long term.

The breakthrough by Impossible Foods will spread to other uses. It is already offering its plant-based meat for pizzas, breakfast sandwiches, tacos, and baos.

If it can scale production to levels that make its product price competitive with traditional meats, while offering the same flavour and mouthfeel, it will pose a real competitive threat to traditional producers.

That is why its progress must be studied and why Irish food businesses ought to consider investing in technologies of that type.

While some may be tempted to ignore the march forward of companies like Beyond Meat, it is always worthwhile to “follow the money”.

The heavy hitters in global finance are getting behind plant-based foods and everyone in the Irish food industry should take note.

Joe Gill is director of origination and corporate broking with Goodbody Stockbrokers, His views are personal.

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