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Has cheap meat had its day?

News Icon 15/06/2015

Artificial meat could push conventional meat into the premium luxury market as the world’s population grows and livestock production fails to keep pace with demand, according to a recent report by researchers at Murdoch University in Australia. The study by the Veterinary and Life Sciences department also said meat producers would need to find solutions to animal welfare, health and sustainability issues “in the face of competition from emerging non-traditional meat and protein products.” I went up to Billingham in the English northeast, to find out about one of these protein sources thought to be about to give meat a run for its money.

The industrial setting is said to have inspired Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’. Two huge tower blocks burst out of the warehouse below. Behind them is a mass of frames and pipes. Inside, rows of people stare at computer screens overseeing the fermentation of wheat into a source of protein promising to be the more efficient replacement for meat from farm animals. This isn’t ‘lab meat’, created from stem cells in a petri dish, but something much more here and now. In fact, it is already widely available in supermarkets in many countries including Britain.

Using a fermenting process similar to beer or yoghurt, a tiny member of the fungi family, called mycoprotein, grows explosively in each fermentation chamber, enough to produce nearly 100,000 burgers a day.

Food scientist, Dr Tim Finnigan has been working for the company behind this innovation, Quorn Foods, for the past 25 years. It’s aimed at the ‘flexitarian’ market, those who want to cut down on the amount of meat they eat, he tells me. There’s a lot of talk about eating less meat for our health and the environment. “And that’s where Quorn is really helpful in transitioning because it’s familiar” Finnigan said. “It’s not asking you to do anything weird or different, you can still have chilli, spaghetti bolognaise, all your usual foods, and just as good in the majority of cases I would argue, but without having to use meat.”

Concerns are growing about feeding a world population set to reach 9-10 billion by mid-century, especially on resource-intensive meat. Married with two children, Finnigan told me how he came to realise when talking to students at a business school that what we’re really talking about here is the legacy we’re leaving for our children: “For the majority of these kids when they’re my age, this is actually going to be the world they live in” he explained. “So unless we do something different to change our relationship with the food that we eat and its impact on the environment, there’s just nothing but trouble ahead.”

The discovery of mycoprotein in the 1960s was the culmination of a worldwide quest by Lord Rank of major bread manufacturer, Rank, Hovis and McDougal, aimed at finding a new protein source without the animal. It now forms the mainstay of a £200 million food business called Quorn. “What they were looking for was a micro-organism, one that would convert the then plentiful carbohydrate into the less plentiful protein” Finnigan explained. “Carbohydrate of course, being a flour and milling business was something [Rank, Hovis and McDougal] knew quite a bit about.” Three Thousand soil samples later and it was found in Marlow, Buckinghamshire in the humble surroundings of a compost heap.

So what are mycoprotein’s credentials? Well, it appears better at converting grain into edible protein than farm animals with less impact on scarce resources. The average kilo of beef takes 12-24 kilos of cereals to produce, whereas even chicken takes 2-4 kilos. In each case, much of the original plant protein is wasted in conversion to meat. Quorn claims to be different. According to the company’s own information, a kilo of mycoprotein needs just 2 kilos of wheat to produce, converting the grain’s carbohydrate into protein without the animal. What’s more, a greater amount of protein is available at the end. “You don’t have to use land to grow protein to feed to another animal that then reduces the yield of protein in the final product” Finnigan explained. “[With mycoprotein] you actually get more protein than you started with which is the opposite of the livestock story.”

Quorn’s greenhouse gas emissions has been looked at by the Carbon Trust, which reports a carbon footprint up to ten times lower than beef and up to 1.5 times lower than chicken.

Olympic champion, Mo Farah, lends his support to the product, described as high in protein, low in fat and helpful in lowering cholesterol. I can vouch for how much the product looks and tastes like meat, thanks to mycoprotein’s fibrous bundles which create meat-like structures. The products use free range egg for binding everywhere but the US where the company says it’s committed to cage-free and is trialling an egg-free (vegan) version.

Quorn was catapulted from obscurity by the European horsemeat scandal with the company’s orange logo now found on supermarket shelves throughout Britain, Belgium, Scandinavia, Australia and elsewhere. After all, if there’s no meat in the product, then there’s no fear of finding horse meat instead of beef: “Post-‘Horsegate’ we saw a huge increase in sales, certainly in the UK” Finnigan said.

So is Quorn one of those ‘emerging’ alternatives threatening to put meat in its place? Well, it does seem to be one of the current front runners. Certainly if the shelves of my local supermarkets are anything to go by. Even our tiny village shop has Quorn sausages in the chiller. No need for animals crammed or confined. No need for the slaughterhouse. No place for the increasingly shameful waste of grain inherent in industrial livestock production. By virtue of its fermenting process, mycoprotein opens up the possibility of low-environmental impact, locally produced food, perhaps even manufactured right in the heart of cities. Local food without trashing the countryside or cruelty to animals; hard to say fairer than that.

But how do others feel? Some say the local cabbie is a good gauge of popular opinion. So in a taxi to the company’s office, dubbed the ‘Quorn Exchange’, I asked the driver what he thought of food made out of mycoprotein: “It’s a good idea” he said, “it can feed the world, can’t it?”


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