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Cash, the cringe factor and meatless meat

Some people cringe at the thought of an animal being sacrificed for human food. Others can overlook that aspect of meat production, and cringe at the thought of meat being anything other than animal muscle.

So who’s winning? Fast food companies with huge public profiles and advertising budgets to match continue developing vegetable products that look and taste like meat. And researchers are making some progress with cell-based meat, the kind that can be grown from animal cells in a lab without sacrificing the original source.

Taking the 30,000-foot view, University of Illinois researchers in a new study that the meatless meat industry’s success depends on two factors.

First is the cost. The rising price of food is a worry, everywhere. Meatless meat production companies must drive down their costs enough to make their products competitive.

It’s an opportunity. Meat is one of the most expensive items in the grocery cart.

But it won’t be easy. Meat and livestock production is a well-oiled system. Conventional meat producers have been working for decades to keep their quality up and costs down. The research and distribution system to help them is solidly in place.

Feed is livestock farmers’ biggest cost. So they work to breed livestock that are the most efficient at using it, while growing or buying feed that makes their animals as healthy as possible or their way to reaching market weight.

Some people like the fact that the meat they’re eating is raised on pasture, eating grass, then supplemented with hay or other natural feed ingredients when the seasons change and pasture is no longer available.

Meat companies like to portray this idyllic farm scene to consumers, particularly given how marketing features such as local, natural and homegrown strike a chord.

That’s a stretch for plant-based meat, and pretty well impossible for lab-raised meat.

Which leads to the second factor, whether people will eat the stuff.

The Illinois researchers say it’s estimated 25-30 per cent of consumers have said they’ll give meatless meat a try. They’re more willing to substitute plant-based meat than lab-grown meat for conventional meat.

Meatless meat products are hardly yet available on the market, so uptake studies have relied on hypothetical choice scenarios. That’s led to wide variations in consumer willingness estimates, especially for lab-grown meat.

One study from 2019 found that only five per cent of consumers would opt for lab-grown meat when given the choice between beef, plant-based beef, lab-grown beef, or no purchase.

Factor in costs, and the figures drop again.

Marketers have their work cut out for them. The researchers cite studies showing that exposure to brand names, such as Certified Angus Beef, compelled eight per cent of consumers who thought they might switch to meatless meat, to switch back to beef.

They say marketing attempts to change consumers’ opinions about the “naturalness” of lab-grown meat would be futile. A European study said that the main roadblock to greater acceptability of lab-grown meat is that consumers perceived lab-grown meat “as unnatural and therefore disgusting.”

So here we are, polarized again when it comes to meat.

Probably, there’s room for conventional meat and meatless meat to coexist. If meatless meat was more affordable it could be used institutionally, perhaps substituted for traditional protein the way other protein sources are used in some booster drinks.

In response to COVID-19, both Beyond Meat and Impossible Meat lowered their prices to make them more competitive. They’re typically about a dollar more than conventional beef.

That’s not out of sight. I’ll try one in time. But lab-based meat? Unlikely. At any price.

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