When meat producers get on the veggie wagon – an interview with Imperial Meat Products

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“As a known brand we can lure customers of our meat products to buy our meatfree products”

It was pretty close to unthinkable a couple of years ago, but today more and more meat producers are betting on plantbased alternatives. Imperial Meat Products – known under the brand name Aoste – is part of the Campofrio group, and with an eighteen percent market share is one of the larger European players in the field of processed meat products. I talked to CEO Remco Kok and Marketing Manager of Innovation Thomas De Boes, at their headquarters near Ghent, Belgium.

Explain to me what your plans are in the meatfree department
Our aim is to get only half of our turnover from meat and the other half from meatfree by 2025. We consider ourselves a company of butchers and craftspeople, but our craft does not necessarily have to be based on meat as an ingredient. So we started to look for alternatives. And whatever meat we continue to sell, we have to believe in ourselves.

What kind of meatfree products can consumers already buy from you today?
We have launched vegetarian slices and vegan spreads, and soon will also be launching burgers. We’re also working with hybrid (or blended) products. Sausages are a big category for us, and it is perfectly possible to produce sausages that are only seventy percent meat and thirty percent vegetables. And we try the same with other meat products. We have developed, for instance, a chicken fillet with more than thirty percent vegetables. We’re still unsure as to how to work with this: is it something you communicate to the consumer, like an asset, or is it better not to mention it at all? Do we create products with visible pieces of vegetables, or do we make sure people can’t notice them? All of this of obviously depends on what the customer appreciates.

Why and how did you start thinking about investing in meatfree products?
Two years ago, together with our colleagues from the Netherlands and Luxemburg, we did a strategic exercise about where our company was at. We’ve been operating in Belgium for sixty years, and with our Dutch brand Stegeman even one hundred and sixty years. Our slogan is “more attention, more pleasure” – we want to put our attention in everything we do, so that the consumer can enjoy our products to the fullest. But today you can’t just have attention for your products or your customers at the expense of the planet. Thinking this way, we arrived at some new objectives, which we call 0 – 50 – 100. The 50 refers to fifty percent meat and fifty percent vegetables. The 0 refers to zero percent waste: we don’t want to waste anything: no food, but also no energy (consequently we’ve invested in a solar panel park). The 100 refers to one hundred percent transparency. In our sector, a lot happens behind the curtains. But that doesn’t fit with our vision, or with the world as it is today. So we aim to be entirely transparent in everything we do.

Could that go as far as putting cameras in slaughterhouses, for instance?
That’s not something that we do yet, but I think that’s where we should be headed…

Imperial Meat Products headquarters near Ghent, Belgium

Can you tell us something about sales results of your meatfree products, so far?
Results are largely positive for now. We remain on the shelves, and retailers want to give them even more space. But we can’t say at this point that the masses are buying them. So we have to see how we can create more visibility for our products.

How do you do that?
People know our brand, and that’s an asset that we can use. We need to lure the customers who buy our meat products to our meatfree products. We’ve got a campaign running, for instance, where you get a free meatfree product with a meat product that you buy. Or a coupon for a veggie product on the packaging of our traditional products. Also interesting to note is that we can deliver our meatfree range to the many butchers that we are dealing with. And of course we are more able than small companies to put some marketing budget in these products. We’ve had tv-commercials for our plantbased products, and there’s a foodtruck exclusively for them. Recently we handed out 3500 samples at a student event.

Would you like to eventually sell the plantbased products in the meat section?
That would be great, and I think that’s coming. It’s a matter of time. There just have to be enough people wanting those products. Look at organic products: they used to be in a separate section in the supermarket, but now they’re spread among the rest.

Meat producers jumping on the veggie wagon will seem suspicious in the eyes of many vegetarians and vegans. One of their arguments would be that the company might invest the profit from meatfree products in their meat department, so that anyone buying meatfree from them would inadvertently contribute to more animal suffering.
It’s rather the other way around: for the moment, we are investing more in meatfree than the profit it brings, so it’s part of the meat profits that go to meatfree. Of course we’ll need to make a profit in the future, otherwise it’s not sustainable. But we’re not committed to meat. We’re no longer a meat company, we’re a food company. We’ll probably change the name Imperial Meat Products at some point. In the future, we want it to be so that whoever buys our products invests in the further spreading of meatfree.

Four or so years ago your company was running a tv-commercial that was making fun of vegetarians. How do you look back on that today?
This may sound cheap, but I wasn’t the CEO back then, and I wasn’t supportive of this campaign. In any case, when I see what’s happening now in the company… the change is really structural, fundamental, and I’m sure that the person who comes after me will not be able to go down that road again. We can’t go back anymore.

Do you have any assets in producing plantbased products which smaller, more traditional producers of plantbased products don’t have?
I believe so. Our scale in itself is an asset. We can invest in research & development at a larger scale. We can use our equipment to produce meatfree products. We can do a lot of test runs. We have a very extensive expertise in working with ingredients, whether they are of animal or of plant origin. That goes from expertise with machines to knowledge about bacteria etc.

Could meatfree products ever be more profitable than meat products, further down the line?
Meat is presently sold too cheaply. It’s become a commodity, and food – certainly food originating with living beings – should never be a commodity. It’s hard to say how things will go. In our case, we’ve still got a lot of costs and investments, and we still need to make the category wider known. But if we can produce larger volumes, it could be a lot more profitable. Especially if meat prices increase.

“Food – certainly food originating with living beings – should never be a commodity.”

What is your main challenge?
Demand. The consumer is outraged about all kinds of things, but more often than not sticks to the same buying behavior. There’s a lot of hype about the sales of meatfree, but we hear other stories as well. For instance that during the recent “week without meat” in the Netherlands, sales of meat products went up as well – together with sales of meatfree. The Dutch NGO Wakker Dier has radio campaigns running against meat discounters, but it’s not clear if that is working or not – maybe a lot of consumers hearing these ads are made aware of low prices and go out and buy these products. I think we have to work together with our colleagues and other stakeholders, because of course we by ourselves won’t be able to push the consumer in a different direction.

Suppose that at some point it will be clear that animal products are on the way out… will your company be able to adapt?
We have to adapt all the time anyway – we need to update our machines, for instance. And yes, we need to always be aware of new developments, and need to get on board in time. But I’m pretty sure that in this case we’re on top of it. It’s not that difficult anyway for a meat processing company. We are to a high extent resource-independent. The things we do with animal products we can also do with plant products. For slaughterhouses, for instance, it’s of course a lot more difficult to adapt.

“We are to a high extent resource-independent. The things we do with animal products we can also do with plant products. “

So meat or meatfree, it really doesn’t matter? No one here has emotional ties to meat products?
No, there’s no difference. At least not to me. In the factory there might be colleagues who are very invested in meat, specifically. But still, in the end, these people want to make good products. And we’ve seen very positive internal feedback as well. Our product developers are very proud that they can make plantbased products. They see it as an extra challenge.

Using a meat product to offer a coupon for a vegan product (top left)

Concretely: recently two Dutch meat producters – Bobeldijk en Enkco – announced that they are ceasing meat production or selling that department, and will only do plantbased for now on. Can you imagine your company going this way?
I think that for the moment it is better to do both meat and veggie. If we were to only on focus on meatfree right now, we’d become a much smaller player with much less influence. Companies like the ones you mentioned have way less impact on the market than we do. If we’d shrink, we’d leave all kinds of things on the table that could be useful. We’d have less financial power, less brand power, less communicative power. We’d be slimming down our logistics and our expertise… And for the moment we can, exactly because we sell meat, draw the meatloving consumer to our meatfree products by means of our meat products. Also, as a meat company we’re in constant conversation with the rest of the meat sector. We’re in all kinds of platforms where we can exert influence, and it wouldn’t be good to have to leave them at this point.

What do you think the future will bring?
Society clearly is ready for a change. We’re leaving a world where meat is something for every day. How far it will all go depends on the consumer. Meat may not ever disappear entirely, but whatever meat there will be will be more animal and environmental friendly. And then there’s also cell-based meat, which we are keeping a close eye on.

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