Hybrid meat to the rescue? An interview with Jos Hugense from Meatless

The lower the amount of animals we raise (mainly for food), the more suffering (and obviously killing) we avoid. Lowering the amount of animals raised can come as a result of different things. Basically, it would be the consequence of a lower demand for animal products. We can help lower demand by increasing the number of vegans (which is kind of the default objective of our movement). We can also get many people to reduce their consumption of animal products. This, in itself, can be done in different ways. People can reduce the number of meals (or days) in which they consume animal products. Or – and this is a strategy not commonly considered – we can produce animal products which contain a lower amount of animal ingredients. A Toyota Prius is called a hybrid car because it runs both on gas and electricity. In a similar way, there are hybrid food products: they are part animal, and part plant-based. Jos Hugense, founder and CEO of the Dutch company Meatless, is at the forefront of this technology.Jos Hugense

Vegan Strategist: Jos, can you explain to me what Meatless is?
Jos Hugense: Meatless produces texturized products based on grains and legumes for food processing companies that manufacture vegetarian, meat or fish products. To bind our products, we use ingredients from seaweed, rather than extrusion techniques. We only use natural whole foods as basic material, and our products are unique in the world. They are used in vegetarian and vegan products, but also in processed meat and fish products to replace part of the meat or fish. These so-called “hybrid” meat products are one more way of replacing and reducing raw materials of animal origin.

Can you give an idea of the size of your operation?
Meatless operates in twelve different countries and has now substituted around ten million kg of meat since we started in 2006. We have seen growth numbers of over twenty percent every year since 2010. We currently produce one ton of product per hour. A second new production line is being built and will be in production from September 2017.

the Meatless factory in Goes, Netherlands
the Meatless factory in Goes, Netherlands

How and why did you get into this business?
I worked in the meat processing business for over thirty years. During the BSE (“mad cow disease”) epidemic at the end of the nineties, I started to look for more healthy, low-fat meat products. The sustainability issues related to animal farming were not very well known at the time. Then, in 2006, I came across Livestock’s Long Shadow, the famous FAO report. This was the first signal that the strong growth in livestock production after World War II posed big environmental problems. From then on, we tried to design not only healthier meat products, but we also specialized in more sustainable food, either entirely plant-based or with much less meat.

What do you see happening right now in terms of meat consumption, both in Europe and globally?
Globally, meat consumption is still growing, at a rate of about two percent per year. We passed a global production of 300 million tons in 2015 and are now heading for 400 million tons in ten to fifteen years time. That would mean a sixfold increase compared to 1960. In some European countries, we see a slight decline of meat consumption, or at least growth has stopped. Vegetarian/vegan products are seeing a healthy growth rate of about six to seven percent per year in Europe, as well as globally (though in the UK meat consumption has actually grown in the past years). But in spite of this healthy growth, the meatfree market is still relatively small. There is no sign yet of a drastic reduction, and we can’t talk about any real transition yet. The current situation in Germany, for instance, is €260 million in meatfree sales versus €20 billion in meat sales. So, we are nowhere near achieving a balance between meat and meatfree.

Do you think your product is compatible with the ambitions of the vegan movement? Put another way: does the vegan movement have reason to support hybrid products? On the one hand, they definitely decrease the number of animals needed. On the other hand, is it possible that this is a way for meat to reestablish itself as more sustainable and healthy, and thus to keep existing?
Meatless products are used in a number of successful vegan products in Europe and the USA. I don’t know if the vegan movement should support Meatless; that is a question it should answer for itself. I can tell you that myself and my product have been the subject of negative comments and discussions by vegans who believe this product is not in alignment with their values. Things often end up getting polarized, and polarization is often the end of the discussion and mutual respect. My approach to the ethical question is pragmatic. I see meat production and meat consumption as something which will not disappear in the next decades. But we need to urgently reduce our environmental footprint. Moving towards a more sustainable diet is not something we can postpone for too long.

Could hybrid products help people get accustomed to the idea of eating less meat? Are products with Meatless obviously lower in meat content (i.e. is it mentioned clearly on the packaging), or is done more stealthily?
We do it both ways. In the past few years, we have seen more and more acceptance of hybrid products, which means we can use this in some situations or products as a unique selling proposition. On the other hand, the negative comments and discussions I just referred to obviously do not encourage producers and distributors to be transparent. Companies don’t particularly like to be targeted by angry customers.

What is the ideal percentage of plant-based material in hybrid products? How far can we go?
Today, the most common ratio is 20 to 25% of Meatless in a meat product. However, we are testing up to 80% plants/20% meat for one of the big European food processors. In some applications, like hamburgers, I see that as very well possible in the near future. In any case, for all kinds of processed meat products, at least 25% is perfectly possible.

I guess some of the best vegan alternatives don’t taste any less meaty than a hybrid product. Do you think most meat eaters, choosing between a vegan and a hybrid product, would prefer the hybrid?
Meatless in a meat product can improve the product’s quality in such a way that in a blind tasting, it is preferred over the 100% meat product. We never had a blind tasting where a vegan product was preferred over a meat product, though it is true that vegan products can get close to “the real thing”, especially with spices and sauces. I would be very satisfied if plant-based products could match the taste of meat. We might get there, but perhaps we also have to get used to the taste of different products like nuts and beans. Eating vegetarian or vegan doesn’t necessarily mean that one will use meat analogues in every meal.

Here’s a thought experiment: what are the advantages and disadvantages of each of these three scenarios in terms of bringing us closer to a vegan world?

  1. one vegan
  2. two 50% vegans (half of their meals are vegan)
  3. two people who eat only Meatless products which are 50% meat, 50% plant-based

That’s a difficult question. It depends on the criterion you use. For what it’s worth, if you are mainly concerned about sustainability, I’d say 1 and 2 are similar. Whether 2 or 3 wins, depends on the nature of the products consumed – some foods are more sustainable than others, even within the vegan range. If you mainly consider the number of animals used, the three options have quite similar effects, I think. Of course, if you also consider non-food products (clothing, etc.), then the vegans clearly win. Finally, if you look mainly at health, probably a vegan may have to pay more attention to his or her diet. But what is the healthiest of these options depends on the optimal degree of animal products in one’s diet. We eat about 250g a day now. If the optimal amount of meat and other animal products is zero, then the vegan consumer would be the healthiest. Now, of course, to determine how healthy or sustainable a lifestyle is you’d also have to look at other factors than just food.

What do you think will be the role of clean (cultured) meat?
It depends on the resources that will be required in order to produce it efficiently. At this time, it is a very interesting scientific experiment. But many things have to be in place, both ethically and in terms of sustainability. And there is the question whether people will eat meat that doesn’t come from an animal but from a factory, without the involvement of an animal. Many customers are very reluctant to accept chemical or industrial foods, and it’s hard to predict how they will react to clean meat. The future will tell. In the meantime, we have to do research and development and testing, and we have to work hard. Like I said, time is running out.

More info: www.meatless.nl

Want to read more about strategy for the vegan movement? Check out my book How to Create a Vegan World.

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