Solutions to the worlds most pressing problems are usually not black-and-white. There is an issue on this planet that is too big and too important to only have an ideological discussion about “yes or no” and that needs a third path — it’s the question of “do you eat meat”?
Evidence is mounting that current levels of meat consumption, especially in developed countries, are highly unsustainable — both from a public health perspective and even more so from an ecological or climate crisis perspective¹. The issue recently made it into public awareness, helped by a multitude of studies and the resulting media attention.
Yet, this change in perception has not translated into significantly increasing rates of vegetarians or vegans² — simply because eating meat is one of the most culturally wired habits in modern society. It’s true that many people, some reports go as high as 50% of the population³, want to react by proactively eating less meat and sometimes even calling themselves “flexitarian” — however, actually changing ones eating habits in everyday life is very hard for most people: Meat is everywhere readily available, people love the taste, smell, look and texture, it is cheap and in most cultures it plays a big role in family traditions or societal rituals. Think Thanksgiving Turkey, Christmas Roast Beef or just a barbecue with friends — and the list could go on forever.
Plant-based meat replacement products have been out for many years and are nowadays widely available on mainstream grocery shelves and slowly start to appear in restaurant menus as well. While some of these brands are actually targeting meat eaters, my hypothesis is, that the products are in fact bought mainly by a very small group of early adopters, since for the following reasons, most meat eaters would never buy a mock meat product:
First of all, it’s about their mindset. They believe those products are for vegetarians, and for vegetarians only— so, since they don’t belong to that tribe, they don’t even consider it an option for them. On the contrary, there seems to be a common backlash against “fake meat”, as if those products would “defraud” the original products. Grocery stores typically increase the problem by stocking such products on separate shelves, far away from the meat shelf and therefore out of sight and out of mind for the regular meat eater. Heavily processed products, long and mysterious ingredient lists and bad experiences from early-days tofu mock meats do their part for the bad image of the industry.
In recent years, a new wave of plant-based meat products appeared. Venture Capital-backed companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods from the US, or Oumph! from Sweden not only created superior products, they also did to mock meat what Tesla did to electric cars: they made it desirable. They’ve built strong consumer brands with a following of enthusiastic brand ambassadors. They are experiencing rapid growth at the moment and will surely be able to build big companies. And while I wish all of those companies only the very best, I’m afraid that their market potential has some kind of a ceiling as to how much market share they will be able to gain, especially in the short- to mid-term.
The hypothesis of this article is, that there is a significant target group in western society, that wants to reduce their meat consumption, but is not yet ready to give up on meat in favor of mock meat products, no matter how close they resemble meat. That mostly stems from the previously made point of how strongly meat is woven into our society, habits and belief systems. People don’t eat meat only for the taste — they do it for the feeling of superiority over nature, for nutritious reasons, out of a lack of knowledge of alternatives and many other points. A recent study found that 51% of US consumers don’t consider a meal without meat a full meal and 2/3 of Americans think that meat is an essential part of balanced diet⁴. Even though many studies show the clear health benefits of a plant-based diet⁵, it will take a long time still for the wider public to believe it.
This is where hybrid meat comes into play. Taking the best of both worlds, it combines meat and plant-based ingredients in products like burger patties, meat balls, tacos etc. Depending on the mixture, it can thereby replace up to 75% of meat , while keeping most of its taste and texture. The so-called “Blenditarian movement” shows in real life that a 50/50 blend works well for burger patties, from school canteens in the Midwest to upper-class restaurants in NYC. However, early experiments done by Israeli cultured meat company Supermeat show that blending in only 13% of animal-based ingredients, can already create a taste and texture that makes the end product almost indistinguishable from a 100% meat product.
Such kind of hybrid product would be sold on the meat shelf of the supermarket and be part of the “meat option” at the canteen — it would actually target meat eaters, and meat eaters only, so it should be easier to get the message across. Besides the novelty factor and a potentially improved taste, the lower environmental impact as well as the superior nutritional profile could be communicated as secondary benefits. For specific target groups, think heart patients, pregnant women, athletes, eco-conscious omnivores etc. these benefits could be communicated more strongly, thereby creating strong incentives and brand identification.
Let’s do the math. Assume 20% of people would be open to eating mock meat, while 80% are not. Serving a conservative 50/50 hybrid meat to the latter would result in a reduction of meat consumption that is twice as big, as the reduction that stems from the purely plant-based solution. Not only would the impact be huge, it should be a massive business opportunity. So, while hundreds of millions of dollars are pumped into plant-based meat startups⁶, might hybrid meat be an even bigger opportunity?
When evaluating this business opportunity, there are two perspectives. In the short-term, we can see a massive industry being disrupted by a change in consumer attitude (more flexitarians), a change in technology (availability of hybrid meat products) and potentially a change in the underlying cost drivers (CO2 tax, animal welfare regulation etc.). The market for minced meat in Europe alone is worth EUR 40bn — replacing a fraction of it with a superior product would allow to build a very big company.
Even more interesting though is the long-term opportunity. Once clean-meat becomes commercially available (i.e. at somewhat cost-competitive price levels and after passing regulatory approval) it is unlikely to be sold directly from the lab to consumers. It’s much more likely to also be blended with plant-based ingredients to bring the price-per-kg down and to create a consumer-grade product in terms of texture, taste, color, nutrients etc.
A company that has sold hybrid products with conventional meat for years, that has built a trusted consumer brand, a pool of loyal customers that love meat but are conscious about its consequences, the right set of distribution channels as well as the know-how of how to perfectly blend animal-based proteins with plant-based ones, will be in the ultimate position to just move a lever, switch from conventional to cultured meat and be the brand that successfully commercializes, what easily might be one of the most important technological breakthroughs of our times.
On hybrid meat as a market entry strategy for cultured meat:
Robert Yamans blog post: “A company I’d like to see: Hybrid Animal / Plant-Based Meat”
: The Guardian (December 21 2018) Why eating less meat is the best thing you can do for the planet in 2019 https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/dec/21/lifestyle-change-eat-less-meat-climate-change
: Gallup (August 1 2018) Snapshot: Few Americans Vegetarian or Vegan https://news.gallup.com/poll/238328/snapshot-few-americans-vegetarian-vegan.aspx
: LiveKindly (July 5 2018) 50% of European consumers are consciously cutting out meat, says new report
: Mintel (February 15 2018) Plant-Based Proteins US report
: Dinu M, Abbate R, Gensini GF, Casini A, Sofi F. (November 22 2017) Vegetarian, vegan diets and multiple health outcomes: A systematic review with meta-analysis of observational studies.
: CBInsights (October 29 2018) The Meatless Ecosystem: How Startups Are Attacking Traditional Meat Producers