Understanding fake meat in Australia

Feb 14, 2020 by Mark Dingley

In 1931, Winston Churchill penned an article titled ‘Fifty Years Hence’. In it, he predicted a future of lab-grown meat that would help feed the world.

“We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium,” he wrote.

Though it occurred 32 years later than Churchill predicted, in 2013, the first lab grown meat was grown, grilled and eaten in London.

But what does this change mean for the Australian market? Should livestock producers be worried? Is fake meat even available?

plant-based foods

A growing appetite for mock meat

From alternative, plant-based and green protein to lab-grown fake meat, the global demand for alternative meat sources is predicted to hit $6.43 billion by 2023.

So, what is leading to the growing appetite for fake meat? Firstly, many people are turning to meat-free lifestyles. Currently, more than two million Australians don’t eat meat – unsurprisingly, Melbourne and Sydney are leading the pack.

Celebrity status is even playing a role in the demand for alternative protein sources. Bill Gates has backed Impossible Foods, a Californian company that makes meat from plant protein. Richard Branson has a financial stake in Memphis Meats, which aims to mass-produce lab-grown meats. He believes that within 30 years, killing animals for food will seem archaic. Likewise, Leonardo DiCaprio, who is known for his environmental activism, backs Beyond Meat, a plant-based meat maker. He has said “Livestock production is a major contributor to carbon emissions. Shifting from animal meat to the plant-based meats developed by Beyond Meat is one of the most powerful measures someone can take to reduce their impact on our climate.”


Types of alternative meats

You can now find plant-based meats on almost all supermarket shelves, in markets and on restaurant menus around the country. Whether you’re looking for beef patties, chicken schnitzels, sausages, bacon, duck or fish, you can find all this and more – and all made without any meat! Perhaps most surprising of all, is that they are just as popular with meat eaters as they are with vegetarians and vegans.

At the forefront of the fake meat industry is Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, both of which are based in the Silicon Valley. These two companies both use food technology to replicate flesh in terms of taste, touch and smell. The Impossible burger is even being served on Air New Zealand flights.

After seven years in the making, the Impossible Burger has been engineered and lab-designed to create a combination of plant-based protein, yeast extract, plant gums, seasoning and spices. Every minute detail has been considered, with a biochemistry professor from Stanford University, Patrick O. Brown creating a ‘plant blood’ from the iron-rich molecule called heme, found in both plants and animals.

And while plant-based meats are rising in popularity, it’s predicted to be at least a decade before experimental lab-grown meats hit the supermarket shelves. Unlike plant-based products, which use a plant protein to create meat substitutes, lab-grown meat is, for all intents and purposes, a meat product. It is produced by scientists, cultivating cells in vitro, a form of cellular agriculture that involves incubating and feeding the cells nutrients.

The delay in lab-grown meat reaching our supermarkets is due to the chemical make-up of meat, as Professor Robyn Warner from the University of Melbourne told the ABC: “I think cultured meat could be commercially available in 10 years’ time, but there will be limitations to that. At the moment we can replicate a ground-meat product, like a hamburger, but meat is a complex structure comprised of muscle cells, embedded within the connective tissue, which has capillaries and blood vessels and fat cells, and the flavour of meat comes from 750 compounds.”


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The fake meat debate

The biggest points of contention surrounding fake meat in Australia and on a global level is centred around two issues:

  • Should they be called meat?
  • Should they be stocked in the meat section?

In 2018, France banned the use of meat and dairy related words from any vegetarian or vegan products, such as vegetarian sausage, soy milk or dairy-free cheese, believing that consumers would be confused into thinking these items may contain animal products. This same debate is underway in Washington DC.

While the National Farmers Federation here in Australia isn’t following the French, some farmers and National Party politicians weren’t impressed with Woolworths decision to launch a plant-based mince line within the meat section at the supermarket. As MP Michael McCormack, leader of the National Party and Deputy PM, told the ABC: “Mince is mince, mince is meat. That’s my interpretation of what mince is.”

But the CEO of Beyond Meat, Ethan Brown, has urged retailers to stock plant-based proteins in the meat section, as it exposes these ethical alternatives to customers who may not otherwise venture near vegetarian or vegan products.

The future of mock meat

The rise of meat-free lifestyles is not a trend with an expiration date. Australian customers are speaking with their wallets and sending a clear message that plant-based products are already a staple of many diets. Woolworths’ mock-mince and Coles’ Beyond Meat Burgers are selling strongly, despite the debate surrounding their placement on the shelves. With clear ingredient labelling that leaves no room for product confusion, the industry will continue to grow without controversy - and though it may be a contentious issue for livestock farmers, it’s also an opportunity for the food industry to innovate as they continue to meet evolving consumer demands and the growing threat of climate change.