KANSAS CITY, Mo. – I just finished reading an excellent article written by one of our expert food industry writers, Chicago-based Donna Berry, with the working title of “Meat Analogs: ‘The Next Generation”, which will be published in the July issue of Meat&Poultry magazine. Judging from what she wrote, meat analogs are evolving and tasting better than ever.

For those who might be unfamiliar with this term, meat analogs are non-meat products designed to mimic the attributes of meat.

Reading this article sparked memories from 20 years ago when I wrote a trends article on meat analogs. While researching this piece, I asked several leading processors during a major industry convention and exposition if their companies offered meat analogs…and if not, would they consider offering them someday. I can still remember the glazed looks on their faces and lack of responses — which I took to translate to “No…and we never will!”

Although it’s not easy to duplicate a meat product using non-meat ingredients, I have to admit….. some of the meat analogs, as well as seafood analogs, I have sampled — particularly in more recent years —tasted pretty darn good.

I also remember that Bob Rust, professor emeritus, Iowa State Univ., Ames, Iowa, told me when I was writing that article 20 years ago that the meat industry should be more involved in making meat analogs. Since The American Meat Science Association (AMSA) recently announced that Rust was named the 2013 AMSA R. C. Pollock Award Winner, I wanted to give him a quick call him at home to congratulate him. The R. C. Pollock Award is presented annually in honor of the first general manager of the National Live Stock and Meat Board. After several minutes on the phone, it didn’t take long for Rust to iterate what he told me about meat analogs 20 years ago.

“When I first made that statement, it came at a time when meat analogs were the enemy,” he chuckled. “My philosophy was ‘who is better equipped in terms of knowing all of the attributes that the meat analogs should have than someone in the meat industry.’ What you’re trying to do essentially is duplicate a meat product. Who has the technology other than the meat processor — for example, smoking, cooking and other processes that go into the making of a meat product or ‘imitation’ meat product.

“It seems kind of ridiculous to give the business away to [non-meat companies,]” Rust said. “Don’t fight them, join them. Here’s an opportunity.”

Rust recalled attending an ANUGA show in Cologne, Germany, many years ago and one of the largest Israeli meat processors was exhibiting meat analogs, as well as their own meat products, at that show. “That was a smart way to do business,” Rust said. “You have the technology, machinery, all of the know-how that’s needed. If consumers are going to buy [meat analogs], you might as well be the one selling [them] rather than your competitors.”

When asked from an operations standpoint to identify the difficulties in producing meat analogs in a meat plant, Rust quickly responded, “One of the things we must be cognizant of now is consideration of cross-contamination from allergens.”

If [the meat analog] is a soy product and you’re also using soy in your meat products, or if you’re using milk proteins — although they’re not as prominent now as they once were — they are potential allergen problems for some people, he said.

“You’d have the concern about your label, particularly from the allergen standpoint,” he continued. “As far as technology is concerned, I haven’t worked that much in the meat-analog business. There are some differences there but nothing the technologists in the meat plant wouldn’t be entirely unfamiliar with once they were told how to [create] a particular meat analog.

“If there’s a market for meat analogs out there, you might as well capitalize on it,” Rust iterated.
Meat analogs must also be competitively priced to succeed in the marketplace, Rust pointed out. And there’s the issue of how it fits in a plant’s processing schedule. “If you’re running full capacity now, that probably isn’t too good of a thought [to process meat analogs] in a small volume,” he added. “I recall the time when, textured soy analogs were the ‘big thing’. You had ham, roast beef and chicken imitations, if you will. [Those companies] must have overestimated the market for those products.”

Rust recalled when General Mills built a major facility in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to manufacture soy-based meat analogs…the wet products, not the dried textured soy products, he added. “These products were essentially imitation diced ham or imitation diced chicken that could be substituted in a recipe for diced ham or diced chicken breast and more,” he said. “It wasn’t too many years before that [operation] ended up as a big pile of stainless steel scrap. I think the plant’s now making cereal.”

One of the few meat-analog survivors is bacon bits, Rust said. “But even now they are getting surpassed by the real bacon bits manufacturers…I see real bacon bits being marketed probably more aggressively than the imitation bacon bits,” he added.

Rust also recalled that years ago some meat analog products tasted pretty decent when they were used in a combination product, such as ham salad or chicken salad. “They were costly to manufacture, I guess,” he added in reference to no longer seeing these products today.

Is there a future in meat analogs being made by US meat companies? “I think there’s a market out there. How big it is…this is for the marketing people to determine,” he concluded.

Some readers might be thinking why would meat analogs be made by vegetarian-oriented companies when it appears vegetarians and their anti-meat allies hold much contempt for all things meat and poultry? “Most vegetarians do not avoid meat because they don’t like its flavor or texture,” one source explained to Berry in her July article. And she further noted the Humane Research Council, Olympia, Wash., reported that only 1 percent to 3 percent of the US population is vegetarian or vegan. The primary reason people choose a vegetarian or vegan diet is to reduce “animal suffering” on farms; the second reason is for health.

Here’s hoping some meat and/or poultry companies seriously explore creating meat or poultry analogs in the near future. Who knows…this potential niche could provide a real boost to their bottom line —providing they produce the right product at the right price.