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Big Food confronts high-tech challengers

Innovative food startups trying to curb soaring meat production can expect legal and political obstacles

November 26, 2014 2:00AM ET

Growing more and more animals for food is unsustainable. The World Health Organization predicts that global annual meat production will increase from 218 million tons in 1998 to 376 million tons by 2030. That uptick will bring with it numerous negative consequences, including deforestation, animal manure contamination of air and water and excessive use of water supplies and harmful energy sources, not to mention contributions to climate change.

Recognizing this problem, food startups backed by significant venture capital are hoping to create food products without using animals. The goal: provide a viable alternative to the existing animal foods production model that is wreaking havoc on the environment, public health and animal welfare.

As a new wave of products aiming to mimic meat, eggs and dairy comes to mainstream supermarkets, Big Food’s pushback will only mount — and what started in the lab will soon make its way to the political arena.  

The new science of food

For now, at least, most of these startups are focused on science and not politics, and they’re reinventing animal-based food.

One such company, with aspirations of building a better burger, is Impossible Foods. Started by Patrick Brown, a Stanford University biologist (dubbed a “mad scientist” by the Wall Street Journal) and backed by an impressive $75 million, it says it is “developing a new generation of meats and cheeses made entirely from plants.”

Brown, who calls conventional livestock “an antiquated technology,” has unlocked certain properties from the molecule found in plant hemoglobin that make blood red and gives steak its flavor. It’s hard to tell from this image that Impossible Foods’ “cheeseburger” contains no beef or cheese. Depending on how the company positions its products, it could face challenges from the meat industry claiming it is fooling consumers.

The startup Modern Meadow, which has raised $10 million, is tackling the longer-term challenge of cultured meat: creating meat from animal cells. So far, it is avoiding the complex regulatory hurdles for meat by starting with cultured leather to get consumers on board.

The big question these businesses face is, How will the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) handle animal-free meat? Will the usual food safety regulations associated with beef and poultry production apply to cultured meat? How will such products be labeled? The powerful meat industry will likely lobby the USDA to reject them altogether or put up barriers that could significantly delay or even halt getting them to market.

Another huge challenge for cultured meat will be consumer perception. Modern Meadow CEO Andras Forgacs told The Guardian, “People have really strong opinions about food, especially when it comes to new technologies.” He rightly plans to be open about the process. “The more consumers understand how we do what we do … the more transparency, the more labeling, the better, as far as I’m concerned.” The massive public relations arm of the meat lobby will likely take advantage of possible consumer wariness, so Modern Meadow should prepare for that.

Hoping to take over the dairy aisle without using cows are a couple of young scientists just setting up their lab, thanks to a jump start from the nonprofit New Harvest, which led to a $2 million investment from Horizon Ventures, a Hong Kong–based capital firm led by billionaire Li Ki-Shing. (Horizon is also investing in Hampton Creek, Impossible Foods and Modern Meadow.) 

The more 'new meat' reaches the consumer, the more threatened Big Meat will become.

Muufri (pronounced “moo-free” — get it?) intends to create a cow-free version of milk that, according to the company, “tastes just like animal-produced milk.” Ryan Pandya, one of Muufri’s co-founders, told me the company expects the milk to be used in common dairy products such as cheese, ice cream and yogurt. When I asked him if he has thought about the potential legal and political hurdles, he said, “We think about it every day.”

The dairy industry is just as formidable as the meat lobby. The National Milk Producers Federation has petitioned the Food and Drug Administration twice to bar nondairy milks from being able to use the word “milk” and has complained (PDF) that products labeled  “soy yogurt” and “dairy-free ice cream” are misbranded and therefore illegal. Big Dairy is likely to take even more aggressive steps to stop cowless milk, including blocking FDA approval.

Another plant-based newcomer with big aspirations (and funding) is Beyond Meat, which makes a very convincing chicken substitute, as well as ground beef made from pea protein. CEO Ethan Brown is aiming for Middle America. “It has to be just as good as, just as convenient as and maybe even cheaper than ground beef or chicken,” he told The New York Times. “Our business is to create something better than meat; otherwise we are not going to move the needle.”

Impossible Foods’ Patrick Brown put it more bluntly, saying, “We want the hard-core beef lovers.” The more “new meat” reaches that consumer, the more threatened Big Meat will become.

Outdated regulations

One clue for how the meat and dairy lobbies may respond to these new foods lies in Unilever’s lawsuit (PDF) against San Francisco startup Hampton Creek over the definition of mayonnaise.  Unilever, the consumer goods behemoth, argues that Hampton Creek’s eggless Just Mayo violates the FDA’s standard of identity for mayonnaise, which requires eggs. But that definition is from 1957, well before the recent wave of egg-free mayonnaise-like products came on the market.

Such outdated food regulations could create similar barriers for other plant-based products that are being positioned as analogues to their animal counterparts. High-tech inventions such as cultured meat and dairy products are likely to face even more significant regulatory hurdles, especially given that they won’t be identical to the foods they are replacing; the companies are aiming to create foods that not only are more sustainable but also improve their nutritional profiles. Federal nutrition labeling regulations assume some uniformity within each meat category. What happens when the “new meat” doesn’t fit those profiles?

Such challenges represent a significant shift in the role of meatless and dairy-free product competitors in the marketplace.

Yesterday’s vegetarian and vegan products were relegated to a niche market and sold mainly in natural food stores; they didn’t try to precisely mimic animal foods. In contrast, these new startups are aiming for the mainstream market, which sets a higher bar. Hampton Creek never intended Just Mayo to be a vegan alternative to mayonnaise; it positioned its product as the real deal, and that’s why Unilever got so mad.

The future could bring lawsuits and the erection of regulatory hurdles, such as the silly law that recently got vegetarian meat company Field Roast kicked out of Canada, and negative public relations campaigns, such as the one the egg industry initiated to cast shade on its egg-replacement competitors.

The Unilever lawsuit against Hampton Creek could look like child’s play compared with what awaits the high-tech animal-free meat, egg and dairy industry. But these mission-driven companies are likely to adopt Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick’s response to the challenge: “Bring it on!”

Michele Simon is a public health lawyer, the president of Eat Drink Politics, the author of “Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back” and an attorney with Foscolo and Handel, the food law firm.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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