The problem with faux burgers

Read the original article by Chuck Jolley at feedstuffs.com here.

If you follow the news at all, you’ll soon come to realize people’s dietary habits can be so confusing. Here’s a case-in-point: In an era when the demand for ‘real’ food seems to be a big thing, ‘unreal’ food is gaining market share.  What I’m talking about is meat substitutes, faux burgers, odd things called ‘chik’n’ made from the freshest soy beans, or beef-like products made from genetically modified organisms (GMOs to the uninitiated) and extruded in a factory somewhere.

All the bad and evil things most modern diet denizens freak out over are dietary faves of many people in the veggie mold.  Let’s be honest, nothing can be more unreal in a real food world than a soybean burger. I don’t care how much mustard, ketchup or special sauce you put on it. Does McDonalds’ old jingle — revised here to fit modern times — “Two all-bean burger patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions and a sesame seed bun” make any sense to you?

Even that special sauce should be poison to most foodies. It’s reputed to be made of soybean oil, pickle relish (diced pickles, high fructose corn syrup, sugar, vinegar, corn syrup, salt, calcium chloride, xanthan gum, potassium sorbate (preservative), spice extractives, polysorbate 80), distilled vinegar, water, egg yolks, high fructose corn syrup, onion powder, mustard seed, salt, spices, propylene glycol alginate, sodium benzoate (preservative), mustard bran, sugar, garlic powder, vegetable protein (hydrolyzed corn, soy and wheat), caramel color, extracts of paprika, soy lecithin, turmeric (color), calcium disodium EDTA (protect flavor).

So that you know how imitation meats are made, here’s a quick primer: The process usually begins with pea or soy protein, or textured vegetable protein (TVP). The challenge in processing a convincing meat alternative is getting the texture right. Soy protein is globular while actual meat protein is fibrous, so processors have to alter the soy’s molecular structure.

They do it by exposing the soy protein to heat, acid or a solvent and then running the slurry through a food extruder that reshapes it. The mixture is usually held together with carrageenan or xanthan gum to hold water, and what you get is something that resembles a piece of meat.

Faux meat products can also be made with wheat gluten, which has a stretchy texture that can be easier to modify so it has the chewy mouthfeel of meat. Quorn makes meat alternatives using a double-fermentation process that creates a fungus structurally similar to animal protein.

Now that you know the process, let’s assume, for a moment, that the people demanding fresh, organic, lightly processed foods are not the same people who are buying faux burgers.

But let’s also assume that there could be some confusion out there over what’s real and what’s merely a pale imitation, but the process of making test tube meat has gotten startlingly close to mimicking the eye- and taste-appeal of the real, 100% nature-made thing. Meat analogs made in a laboratory environment and how easily they can be confused with an honest-to-goodness ground beef patty, for instance, have grabbed the attention of the U.S. Cattlemen’s Assn. (USCA).

USCA thinks consumer confusion is a problem and it is caused by misleading labels. Kenny Graner, USCA’s president, has signed a petition asking that the U.S. Department of Agriculture consider some revisions to labeling. Several other industry groups agree, suggesting real meat and imitations of real meat are akin to the butter and margarine controversy of the mid-20th century. They’re saying, “Let’s be honest with consumers.”

When I asked Graner to clarify USCA’s position, he said, “In no way do we wish to limit consumers’ choice of protein products, but we do support clear and truthful labeling.”

With the new-found investor money behind processed imitations of meat and the publicity given to TGI Friday’s decision to join in on Meatless Monday and roll out Beyond Burger’s vegetarian patty systemwide, what was once an odd but relatively insignificant market segment seems to be gaining credibility. Here is what Graner had to say about it.

Q. Kenny, just a few weeks ago, USCA joined the National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn. (NCBA) in a petition to USDA concerning the often inaccurate labeling of ‘fake meat’ products. You said “Consumers depend upon the USDA FSIS to ensure that the products they purchase at the grocery store match their label descriptions. We look forward to working with the agency to rectify the misleading labeling of ‘beef’ products that are made with plant or insect protein or grown in a petri dish.”

At its annual meeting in Phoenix, Ariz., NCBA president Kevin Kester issued a press release agreeing with your comment. He stated his group’s goal is to “guarantee that consumers have the ability to purchase a safe, healthy and accurately labeled protein source.”

Only a few years ago, those factory-produced imitations were a non-issue in most households. Does your petition suggest that test tube meat analogs have grown enough market share to become a threat to the real meat industry?

A. While NCBA passed policy at its recent convention for clear labeling of protein products, it was not involved in the petition for rulemaking filed by USCA. We hope that NCBA and other agriculture groups will all work together in ensuring that plant- and insect-based protein alternatives and lab-cultured products are not labeled as “beef” or “meat.” The terms “beef” and “meat” should remain designated to defining muscle that is harvested from live animals.

While at this time, alternative protein sources are not a direct threat to the beef industry, we do see improper labeling of these products as fraudulent and misleading.  Our goal is to head off the problem before it becomes a larger issue, like what the dairy industry has been working on for years. Margarine and butter are differentiated through labeling even though they share the same space in most retail grocery stores and their use as a spread or cooking ingredient are similar. Margarine is plant-derived and butter comes from animal-produced milk.

Q. Recent high-profile investments in lab-grown analogs by the likes of Tyson and Cargill plus major investments by financial heavyweights such as Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Virgin Air’s Richard Branson as well as a decision by TGI Friday’s to go with Meatless Mondays and feature ‘Beyond Burger’ sandwiches on their menu have given these products a major public relations boost. What can USCA and the rest of the meat industry do to balance the news?

A. USCA’s petition is aimed at ensuring consumers have accurate information and we will continue to convey our message to consumers that beef is healthy, tasty and wholesome, as supported by research statements from top dieticians and nutritionists.

Beef is not only healthy for humans, but also — when raised in a responsible manner — beneficial for the environment. Cattle often graze on land that is unsuited for other purposes, and are exceptional at converting low-energy grasses and sunlight into high-energy protein. We’re seeing more and more studies that point to the importance of grassland grazing in supporting carbon sequestration and local landscapes.

There also is a benefit to the rural American communities when consumers choose beef. The majority of American farms and ranches are family owned and operated, which supports local economies and funnels those benefits back into the surrounding environment.

Q. Your organization wants labels to “inform consumers on the differences between beef raised traditionally from cattle and those alternative products deriving from meat cultured in a laboratory or made from plants.”

How much confusion is there now and how should new labels be worded to reduce that confusion?

A. Our focus with the petition is not to define what they should call alternative proteins, but what they should NOT call those products. We again see this as the “butter” or “margarine” example, where one product is sourced from animals and the other is plant-based. People recognize both products for what they are, but having such products side-by-side can be highly confusing to consumers if labels are not clear in stating what the package contains. This petition seeks to prevent confusion that would occur if alternative protein sources were to try and piggyback on the goodwill that beef enjoys with consumers.

Q. Here is something that baffles me. We live in a time when terms like ‘all-natural,’ ‘organic,’ ‘pesticide and chemical-free’ have a tremendous impact on the marketplace yet laboratory-produced meat analogs — which seems to go counter to all of those terms — has some credibility among investors and many consumers. What’s going on?

A. While we cannot speak to everyone’s motives or ethical beliefs when it comes to food, there are a few groups that would like to see all animal agriculture and animal pet ownership ended. To those groups, the ability to produce proteins without the use of animals is very important. To other groups, the idea of consuming protein that is cultured in a lab is unappealing. These are individual choices and, while we advocate for truth in labeling, we do not want to limit consumer choices.

Q. The meat industry seems to be facing something the dairy industry has been fighting for several years — lab-generated imitations of the real thing, nut-based ‘milks.’  I remember one jokester asked “How do you milk an almond?” Seriously, though, is there anything the meat industry can learn from the dairy industry?

A. One thing that we learned from the dairy industry is to be proactive. Cattle producers will need to continue to maintain high standards and seek to improve our growing methods as we responsibly manage our lands. Competing products will always be developed. We are not concerned about competition. We are concerned about alternative products misleading consumers as to what they are buying and eating.”

Q. Looking down the road, what are your plans to make this clarification happen?  

A. The petition for rulemaking to the USDA’s Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) is the first step.  The next steps will depend on the agency’s response to the petition. USCA will continue reaching out to those in the industry and other agriculture and consumer groups, urging them to submit comments to FSIS during the 60-day comment period

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