What’s in a name? Lessons from the Good Food Conference

Posted on September 16 2019 by

Ben Williamson

in the Helpful Tips blog

As the burgeoning alternative meat industry takes shape, many of the conversations taking place around the conference focused on what to call various new developments.

“Food is about identity; it is not a science project” says Josh Tetrick, CEO and Co-Founder of JUST, an alternative meat company with around a billion-dollar valuation. Tetrick dislikes the names “cell-based”, “cultured”, and “cultivated” to describe meat which is grown from cells instead of from animals. He hopes that in the same we now just refer to our smartphones as “phones” and electric cars as “cars” (well, in San Francisco maybe), soon we will refer to animal-based-meat-without-the-animal simply as, “meat”.

Uma Valeti, CEO and Co-founder of Memphis Meats somewhat agrees but argues cell-based companies should be proud of the neutral and informative “cell-based” moniker because it describes the ground-breaking technology honestly. “The more truthful and direct you are with the consumer, you are talking to them on their level… Truthfulness is going to win”, Valeti says.

Sadly, regulators may well decide the outcome of this particular debate as First Amendment lawsuits filed by our conference hosts—The Good Food Institute, along with ACLU and ALDF—against protectionist labelling laws in Arkansas and Missouri mean the names of various plant-based and cell-based foods are probably going to be chosen by the courts.

“We’re not trying to mislead anyone” explained David Benzaquen, Co-Founder and CEO of Ocean Hugger Foods. “We’re open about: It’s plant-based, it’s vegan, it’s this and that” (non-GMO, Kosher-certified, and safe for pregnant women and nursing mothers, according to the website) . Benzaquen’s company has created the world’s first plant-based alternative to raw tuna, made with just five simple ingredients—tomatoes, soy sauce, sesame oil, water and sugar. “We want to tell you want ingredient it’s being used instead of. I don’t want to say ‘tomato-based’ because it’s not much like a tomato”.

The consensus among these new kids on the block is that all nomenclature has to be respectful of the existing industry.

“We need to loop people in and show it’s not the threat that they imagine”, notes Niya Gupta, founder and CEO of Fork & Goode, which is growing pork directly from cells in Brooklyn, New York. Gupta references an oft-quoted statistic at this convention, that according to a 2018 Kroger study, 93 percent of consumers who bought Beyond Meat at its stores also bought animal protein. “It has to be ‘yes and’” says Gupta, “we need a big tent”.

What do the big boys think of this what-to-call-things debate among newcomers? Can’t say—because they’re all busy renaming themselves too!

Cargill, Tyson, Maple Leaf, and Perdue all now refer to themselves as protein companies, instead of meat companies, reflecting recent years of plant-based food company acquisitions and alternative meat product developments.

“Perdue has been in the plant-based business for a long time” says Eric Christianson, Chief Marketing Officer, Perdue Farms pointing to the companies’ long-standing grain and soybean production. Now, the company is launching Perdue Chicken Plus, a blend of chicken meat and cauliflower, chickpeas and plant protein in its nuggets, tenders and patties. Christianson notes that half of Perdue’s 2019 marketing budget is allocated to this new concoction.

JBS—the world’s largest protein company and the world’s second largest food company, with annual revenue of $50 billion, has been relatively slow to get into the alternative meat market and still refers to itself as an animal protein company. It points to various diet fads in explaining why it has been cautious: In the 80s it was absence of negatives, no cholestrol, low fat etc. In the 90s it was prevalence of positves, calcium in orange juice, added vitamins etc. “I suspect that when JBS enters the market it won’t be with toe in the water, it will be with a cannonball” says Christy Lebor, Global Innovation Lead at JBS.

Whether plant-based, cell-based, or micro-proteins end up dominating our food supply remains to be seen. One thing that is certain after all of the evergy and optimism in San Fracisco last week is that however this new industry decides to define itself the future of food looks completely different.

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