Where’s the beef? Bleeding veggie burgers, lab grown meat and the future of protein

Food Longer stuff
March 1, 2018

In the mockumentary Carnage, Simon Amstel imagines a future in which eating meat is as socially unacceptable as cannibalism. Groups of elderly people sit in therapy sessions trying to come to terms with the atrocities they committed against the animal kingdom, with the narrator quipping “‘Meat-free Monday’ now sounds about as appealing as ‘ethnic cleansing-free Tuesday’.”

We’re still a few steaks away from this bovine utopia, but the idea that the volume of meat we consume is killing us – individually by clogging our arteries, and collectively by destroying the environment – is finally trickling through to the mainstream. Beef is a particular flashpoint, requiring many more calories to produce than it yields, and having a far greater impact on the environment than chicken, pork or dairy (or, indeed, the three combined). Environmental lobbyists are calling for “sin taxes” on red meat, with the Scandinavian countries taking the idea particularly seriously (an obvious – perhaps insurmountable – problem with this is that it would disproportionately affect people on low incomes). This incremental shift in public opinion hasn’t escaped the food industry, and plant-based alternatives to beef are being rushed to market, each promising a brave new meat-free world.

This nascent market is expected to reach $5.2bn in annual sales by 2020, according to research firm Marketsandmarkets. Leading the charge is the Impossible Burger – whose investors include Bill Gates – created by scientists in Silicon Valley and now being rolled out across the States, to some acclaim. It contains a compound called heme, derived from soy root but also found in animal blood, giving its patties the rich, irony flavour of genuine meat (the red juice in meat is technically myoglobin, a muscle-based protein similar to the haemoglobin found in blood cells; both turn red when exposed to oxygen).

The importance of this protein can’t be overstated; when the late, great AA Gill visited the Masai in the Serengeti, they honoured him by nicking the jugular of a bull and filling a gourd with steaming red liquid. It tasted: “Of the very finest, perfectly velvety, unctuous steak,” he said. “But it isn’t the blood that tastes of steak, it’s steak that tastes of blood.” Rather than grow vast soy crops, which are also terrible for the environment, Impossible Foods has engineered the protein to multiply in lab conditions, allowing it to rapidly scale up its production. This scientific wizardry is a double-edged sword, however: while foods can be sold in the US unless proven dangerous, in Europe they must first be proven safe. “We would love to bring the Impossible Burger to the UK,” a spokesperson told me. But it’s “too early to say when it might happen”.

It could be a lengthy process; fusarium venenatum, the microfungus used to make Quorn, was discovered in 1967 but wasn’t passed fit for human consumption until 1985. (Who knows how our separation from the EU might affect all this; perhaps Impossible might end up being the first Brexit burger.) Impossible’s absence has left a conspicuous, burger-shaped gap in the UK market. Enter Moving Mountains, whose founder Simeon Van der Molen says his B12 plant-based burger, for now only available in Mildred’s vegan restaurant in Dalston, “sizzles, smells, tastes and bleeds” like real beef. That’s some claim.

He looks nervous as our waiter approaches. Sandwiched in a simple bun, modestly topped with tomato, red onions and a smear of basil mayo, it looks deceptively like a regular burger. A good burger; the kind you might find in Byron or Meat Liquor. The patty is charred black-brown but inside it’s the vivid pink of rare steak. It’s a little neat around the edges, but this one was pre-cut; restaurants could in theory order the uncooked ‘mince’ and form the patty in-house for a more authentic appearance. As you chew, beetroot-stained juices seep out.

The most impressive part, however, is the texture, which convincingly mimics ground beef, the alchemic combination of mushroom, soy- and wheat-proteins and other “top secret” ingredients emulating the flecked, fatty mesh of a ‘real’ burger. It isn’t perfect – it lacks the faintly metallic taste of blood (there’s no heme in this one), and the consistency is ever-so-slightly off. But if you were to serve it to a room full of oblivious meat-eaters, I doubt many would notice, and it’s a million miles from the bland fare churned out by Quorn and Linda McCartney.

“It was developed to appeal to meat eaters, not just vegans and vegetarians,” says a relieved Van der Molen as I finish the last bite. “It’s designed to help wean people off eating too much beef onto a healthier plant protein diet. There are only 500,000 vegans in the UK, but there are 22m ‘flexitarians’ who want to cut down on meat.” The side-of-the-box figures of the B12 are impressive. It contains 20g of protein (compared to around 14g in a regular burger), is only 120 calories and contains no cholesterol.

But it’s the environmental benefits that will be the biggest hook for woke millennials. “They’re savvy about their food,” says Van der Molen. “They want to know where their protein comes from. And social media has made them much more aware about the industrialisation of animals and the degradation of the environment. This is most definitely the starting point for something huge.”

Meat-free ‘meat’ isn’t the only solution on the horizon. “Lab-grown” meat is also receiving huge investment from venture capitalists looking to get in on the ground floor of the next big thing. To many, this is the real holy grail: genuine meat without all those inefficient cows taking up space and farting the planet to death. The major players in this space include the Shojinmeat Project (Japan), Memphis Meats (California), Mosa Meat (Netherlands) and SuperMeat (Tel Aviv); the more optimistic among them say a product could come to market within two years, but more realistic estimates range between five and ten years for small-scale production and even longer for real volume.

Lab-grown meat isn’t vegetarian in any traditional sense of the word, usually starting life as a few cells of bovine serum taken from the sac of an unborn foetus. These are added to a nutrient fluid in a petri dish until they grow into something visible, after which they are added to a bioreactor where the nascent flesh can be intensively fed. This, alas, is a hugely laborious process, yielding little meat for many man-hours, although if it were sufficiently scaled-up, output could increase exponentially.

Right now, a prototype meatball from Memphis Meat costs around $1,000 (compare this to Kobe, the world’s most expensive beef, for which the same cash will buy you around 2.5kg). There is also the problem of texture – without having to propel a one tonne cow around a field, lab-grown muscle tissue is flaccid and insipid, with a consistency like reconstituted meat. The tissue is often mounted onto racks and slowly stretched to give it a more fleshy texture, but this can only take it so far; making a lab-grown steak is a long way off. This is why burgers are such a major focus – ground beef is easier to emulate; another company is working on synthetic foie gras for the same reason.

Finally, there’s the not-insignificant issue of the meat lobby. The US Cattlemen’s Association has already launched a petition with the Department of Agriculture calling for an official definition for the terms “beef” and “meat”, and this could be the start of a protracted litigation war, causing a major headache for anyone trying to break the status quo. Quorn fell foul of a similar campaign when it launched in the US in 2002, with rival vegan company Gardenburger, alongside the hilariously niche American Mushroom Institute and the non-profit Centre for Science in the Public Interest releasing dubious studies claiming it made people sick. None of the factors leading to renewed interest in meat alternatives are new – over-farming, health concerns and the treatment of animals were all hot topics in the 1960s. So why does 2018 feel like a turning point?

An important development is the big supermarkets identifying meat reduction as a potential cash-cow, says Athena Simpson of food tech trends company Yfood. “The horse meat scandal was a big deal, making people aware of how little they know about their food, and how little transparency there is in the food industry.” Then there’s the increase in environmental awareness – “People are starting to realise things will have to change. We’ll need to increase calorie production by 70 per cent by 2050 in order to feed everybody.” Finally, it’s hip to be veggie: “Street food is a big indicator of trends, and there’s a huge meat-free movement within that.”

So is beef really on the way out? Not according to Martin Williams, founder of M Restaurant. We’re sitting in his Threadneedle Street venue discussing the future of meat over, appropriately, a steak. “We should eat it less, certainly, but it’s about moderation,” he says. “We’re already seeing a shift in consumption. When we opened the restaurant three and a half years ago, 70 per cent of the mains we sold were steak. Now that figure is 50 per cent here and 40 per cent in the Victoria restaurant. “The big drop-off is going to be the way people eat at home – I have access to the world’s best beef and I never cook it at home. But when people dine out they want something special, and that’s where quality beef comes in. I see meat-free and lab-grown meat as more of a mid-market product. But if, many years down the line, the quality was there, and it was transparently marketed, sure, I’d put it on the menu. But don’t hold your breath…”

As we talk, the steak, a Blackmore wagyu inside skirt from Australia, slowly bleeds a little puddle of red juice. It is impossibly tasty; rich, complex, decadent and unmistakeably animal. The meat alternatives have got their work cut out.

First published in City A.M.