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The Great Fake Meat Debate

Not so long ago, the fake meat market wasn’t much more than a few packets of grey tofu dogs that no one touched at the barbecue. Now, the meat alternative industry is a $1.5 billion market. Curiously, production and consumption of real meat are also on the rise. Do these two seemingly-opposite industries have more in common than we think, and can they live in harmony?

It’s nearly impossible to ignore the rise of fake meat. From Burger King planning to roll out Impossible Whoppers by the end of 2019 to White Castle already offering Impossible Sliders, fake meat is everywhere. The sudden and shocking success of fake meat has taken many industry officials by surprise. How could a product that was so niche for so many years suddenly become so popular?

One of the main factors that led to the success of fake meat products is advancements in food science that increase the taste and texture of fake meat. Scientists can now study what makes meat taste so good at a molecular level and replicate it with plant substitutes. Not only can they make the meat taste better, but they can also make the product look more like meat, too. For example, the main ingredient in the Impossible Burger is heme, a molecule that gives blood its signature color. They also use coconut fat and potato protein to mimic a burger’s natural greasiness and texture. Other companies use soybeans, seitan, and Quorn.

Another reason for the rise in fake meat is that Americans have become increasingly health conscious. A recent study from John Hopkins University showed that over 60% of Americans are making efforts to eat less meat.

Health-oriented customers have also played a large role in the rising real meat economy. Americans hit record levels of meat consumption in 2018. According to the USDA, the average American will consume 222.2 pounds of red meat and poultry. Other animal products, such as eggs and milk, have been on the rise as well as Americans trade-in carbs for protein. As high-protein diets become increasingly popular, some adjust their diet by adding meat substitutes to cut back on red meat, while others focus on incorporating high-quality real meat into their lives. The strong economy also lets the majority of Americans afford beef and chicken despite rising meat costs.

While the two industries are both enjoying success, there is concern from the beef industry about the effects of labeling fake meat as ‘beef’ on real meat products. If the value of real meat products is impacted, this could have serious drawbacks for ranchland values. Ranchers are pushing for an official definition of beef and meat. The top priority in the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s list of official 2019 policy priorities is to clarify the definition of those words.

“The use of traditional beef nomenclature on alternative products is confusing to consumers and weakens the value of products derived from actual livestock production,” claims the NCBA’s 2019 Policy Book.

The goal isn’t to get rid of fake meat for good, but to make sure that the customer knows what they are buying.

“While at this time alternative protein sources are not a direct threat to the beef industry, we do see an improper labeling of these products as misleading,” said the  Policy and Outreach Director of U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, Lia Biondo, to USA Today. “Our goal is to head off the problem before it becomes a larger issue.”

Luckily, many titans of the fake meat industry seem to be on the same page.

“I think it actually could help us more than it could hurt us because it starts the national dialogue around what really is meat, and if the origin of meat really matters to the consumer,” said Ethan Brown, the founder and CEO of Beyond Meat, to CNBC.

While meat alternatives are still a relatively new concept to American markets, fake meat could have a lot to offer farmers. Since many fake meats are created from plants such as soybeans, fake meat companies could become steady clients of many farmers.

Real and fake meat are here to stay. One industry doesn’t need to fail for the other to succeed. A changing customer base, strong economy, and scientific advancements have all helped both industries become the successes they are today.

Looking to buy some land to start your own real or fake meat empire? Be sure to always work with a land expert in your area to get the best deal for your money.

About the Author: Laura Barker is a freelance writer based out of California for the REALTORS® Land Institute. She has been with RLI since October 2017.