A disruption is making its presence felt in the food industry; a development to some, a detriment to others. Alternative proteins are steadily gaining popularity among various consumer groups—be it plant-based meat or “clean”/“cultured” meat. While discussions are still ongoing around regulatory requirements, labeling parameters, and marketing initiatives, a crucial swim lane that must also be considered is the cultural piece that bridges consumers with the manufacturers.
Research indicates that food purchases and consumption trends are strongly influenced by consumer values such as supporting local food businesses, sustainability efforts, carbon footprint impact, fair trade, religious beliefs, etc. Consumers rely heavily on food labeling and other marketing platforms, such as social media, to gain a better understanding of their food from farm to plate—a path that used to be linear. With recent biotechnological advances, the journey of food has evolved from “farm to fork” to “petri dish to plate” and has left consumers with more questions than answers about their food. The following are few areas of concern that alternative protein producers and promoters should be aware of.
Open to Interpretation
The science behind food production and processing is often intimidating to consumers simply because it is laden with intricate data and terminologies instead of synthesizing a story by utilizing the data. Remember the raw water fiasco? It’s what happens when the information being shared is open to interpretation instead of validating the consumers’ understanding of the data.
Consumers find it reassuring to read “no hormones added” on the labels when they purchase fresh or frozen poultry in the U.S. But that blanket of security is false because manufacturers are required by the law to not introduce hormones to their poultry products. The label “natural” on meat products too is often misleading as it gives consumers the impression that no antibiotics, preservatives, or hormones were utilized in the rearing of the cattle. Conversely, “natural” is defined by how the animal was slaughtered and not raised. Adding other layers of confusion for consumers are terms such as “clean” and “plant-based.” Additionally, one other aspect producers need to consider with regard to labeling is allergen management and communicating ingredients.
The world of alternative proteins is challenging the way we think and feel about food. Religious practitioners, especially experts within the regulatory industry, have to remain continuously connected with the developers of “clean” meat to ensure the shared values of consumers do not get diluted. For instance, for a meat product to be declared and labeled as halal, the stem cells must be derived from a halal slaughtered animal. And although plant-based meat has been welcomed by vegetarians, most meat consumers do not share the same sentiment as it isn’t real meat.
Impact on Industries
Let’s not forget the impact on industries. While investments are pouring in to advance and scale-up alternative protein mass production, there are concerns on the impact this emerging segment may have on conventional farming. It’ll be interesting to see what alternate farming practices might be adopted as the need to raise and slaughter livestock declines. This shift in breeding practices would very likely incentivize soybean farming and indirectly prompt agriculturalists to claim more land to meet growing soybean demands.