Look out, cowboy. Climate change campaigners are coming for your burger business. So are mushroom growers, Silicon Valley investors and the billionaire Bill Gates.
All are collaborating with food companies, restaurants and chefs to promote alternatives to pure-beef hamburgers. It is a whopper of a market. Americans eat an estimated 10 billion hamburgers a year.
But the cattle industry is not going down without a fight. It is working to highlight studies that U.S. livestock operations are “the most environmentally friendly of any in the world.”
It also is targeted ventures such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, companies that tout the environmental benefits of their plant-based substitutes for beef. The cattle industry has started calling these products “fake meat” and is urging federal regulators to review how they are labeled and promoted.
“We have no problem with what people are calling alternative proteins,” said Danielle Beck, a lobbyist with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. “We want to make sure the marketing of these proteins is not misleading to consumers.”
Last month, a separate group called the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture to adopt stronger labeling requirements for beef and meat substitutes. The petition calls on USDA to ensure that the terms “meat” and “beef” apply only to products from animals “harvested in the traditional manner.”
But the Feb. 9 petition could be a long shot. Even if the agency ultimately sides with ranchers, the process could take years, based on past petitions, according to Beck. Meanwhile, the beef industry is being roiled by synthetic upstarts, as well as new campaigns by health and environment advocates to reduce the industry’s global footprint.
“Current trends in meat consumption are not sustainable, either from a food security standpoint or the environment,” said Greg Drescher, a vice president for the Culinary Institute of America. Alternatives, ranging from synthetic meat to burgers partially made with mushrooms, he said, “are sitting in plain sight.”
Big Beef’s global footprint
Scientists have long linked high-beef diets to a range of health problems, including high cholesterol, heart disease and colon cancer. What’s new is awareness of Big Beef’s contribution to climate change. Environmental researchers say beef production is the number one agricultural source of greenhouse gases worldwide, partly because of the methane released by 988 million cows and the energy needed to grow feed for them.
The cattle industry’s competitors regularly highlight these impacts. Stanford University biochemist Patrick Brown, the founder of Impossible Foods, once called animal farming the world’s “biggest environmental catastrophe.” Bill Gates, who has provided seed funding for Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat and other veggie-friendly ventures, has long written about the benefits of finding plant-protein substitutes for meat.
Chefs are also interested in alternatives. Paul Canales, owner of the Spanish restaurant Duende in Oakland, Calif., said his customers are mainly interested in taste, but also want him to serve foods that are sustainably produced. Last year, Canales purchased 20 pounds of Impossible Foods “beef.” He was curious about the product’s key ingredient — a plant-based, genetically modified form of “heme,” a molecule that gives beef its distinctive juicy taste.
Canales said he first tried the Impossible beef as a burger, but “there was something not right about it.” He then amended it with garlic, chile flakes, cumin and bread crumbs and fried it up to make a form of crispy Spanish meatballs, served with aioli. He put it on the menu as appetizer called “Albondigas Improbables,” not making clear he was serving veggie meatballs.
“People went crazy about it,” said Canales. “We now sell 40 pounds of it a week, and a lot of customers say they didn’t know it wasn’t meat.”
People went crazy about it.We now sell 40 pounds of it a week.
Paul Canales, chef and owner of Duende, a restaurant in Oakland, Calif.
While some consumers are warming to beef alternatives, overall, U.S. meat consumption is on the rise. High-protein diets are the rage, and abundant grain has kept meat prices low. In January, the USDA predicted that the average U.S. consumer will eat 222 pounds of red meat and poultry in 2018, topping the record set in 2004.
Richard Waite, a food researcher with the World Resources Institute, said the headlines don’t tell the whole story. U.S. consumers are buying more meat, but a larger share of it is going to chicken, he said. Moreover, he said, surveys suggest that the younger generation “seem to be more open to flexitarian diets” that include a larger proportion of vegetables and non-meat proteins.
“Blended burger’ takes off
Over the last several months, Waite and his WRI colleagues have worked to popularize the “blended burger,” a patty made of beef and about 25 to 30 percent chopped mushrooms. They’ve lined up companies such as Hilton, Sodexo and Google to embrace “the blend” and serve it to their employees and customers, which number in the hundreds of thousands.
While mushroom farming generates greenhouse gases, the climate footprint of one pound of beef is 30 times that of mushrooms, according to analyses of the full production cycle of both products. If the blended burger could help reduce U.S. beef burger consumption by 30 percent, WRI estimates the benefits would be comparable to taking 2.3 million cars off the road.
“Creating a more sustainable food system does not require a huge lifestyle shift,” said Waite. “Asking every American to go vegan or vegetarian is a much bigger ask.”
This month, Sonic Drive-In started introducing a blended burger at its 3,500 drive-ins nationwide.
Sodexo, which runs thousands of cafeterias nationwide and has a workforce of 133,000 in North America, has long had a commitment to reduce its carbon footprint. It has started purchasing a burger blend from Cargill that includes hormone-free, antibiotic-free beef and 25 percent chopped mushrooms. The company is buying about 120,000 pounds this year, and is just getting started, according to Robert Morasco, the company’s senior director of culinary development.
Last Friday, Morasco cooked up four blended burgers in a test kitchen at Sodexo’s U.S. headquarters in Gaithersburg, Md. He says his customers like that the burger contains less fat and cholesterol than a regular one. But what they really care about is the taste.
“It works really, really well on a flat-top griddle,” Morasco said while the patties sizzled. “You get a nice color on it and it retains its moisture. That is the part I love.”
The blended burger got its early start from the Culinary Institute of America, which in 2011 started collaborating with The Mushroom Council, a trade association, on healthy menu options. They put the blended burger through rounds of tests, leading to 2012 research by an expert in the sensory impacts of food, Jean-Xavier Guinard of the University of California, Davis.
“Americans love burgers, but typically the options available were a 100 percent beef burger or a burger consisting of a portobello mushroom,” said Drescher, the Sacramento-based VP for the Culinary Institute of America. “We wanted to ask what other options were out there.”
The blend has been a boon to mushroom growers, according to Eric Davis, a spokesman for The Mushroom Council. The council recently commissioned a poll that showed that 30 percent of those surveyed had heard of “the blend.” Meanwhile, the 2016-17 U.S. mushroom crop was worth $1.2 billion, up 3 percent from the previous season.
So far, the U.S. ranching industry hasn’t locked horns with the mushroom growers. In fact, the two groups have collaborated on joint promotions for mushroom-beef dishes. “The fact that these have beef in them is great,” said Beck, the beef cattlemen’s lobbyist.
Beck’s group is more focused on the marketing efforts of synthetic beef operations. Recently, she helped produce a podcast that included a taste test of the Impossible Burger. “It was salty. It was mushy. The texture was not like real beef,” she’s heard saying in the podcast.
The ranching industry is also wary of the next generation of meat companies — those that attempt to grow meat on a consumer scale in the laboratory. One of these is Memphis Meats, a California-based company that has received funding from Gates, Richard Branson and even Cargill, a leading U.S. beef company.
Beck argues there’s a need for the USDA and Food and Drug Administration to sort out which agency has jurisdiction over these new ventures. “This kind of lab meat is unchartered territory,” she said.