New products are the life’s-blood of the meat and poultry industry. And products that greatly differ from the competition are always warmly received by consumers and customers alike – providing they taste good and the price is right.

Years ago while interviewing Bob Rust, professor emeritus, Iowa State Univ., on how best to manufacture sausage and new retail sausage trends, we somehow veered off onto the topic of the growing popularity of new meat analogs — those products that look and taste like meat, but are made with non-meat ingredients — that were entering the retail stream.

Just as natural and organic meat and poultry were scoffed at in the early days, meat analogs were also ridiculed by many in the industry at the time. Still, there was no denying new product entries in this category were really picking up steam and they continue to enter the marketplace today at a healthy pace. SymphonyIRI Group, a Chicago-based market research firm, relays for the latest 52-week period, frozen meat substitute sales (Supermarkets, Drugstores and Mass Market retailers excluding Walmart) totaled $278,256,900 – up 1.20 percent from the same 52-week, one-year earlier period. For 2010, the Mintel Global New Products Database logged in 63 meat substitute introductions and 48 during 2011.

During our conversation, Rust said something I never forgot — “Who better to make meat analogs than meat processors themselves?” he asked.

He was right and since then I have asked many meat processors I’ve interviewed along the way why their companies haven’t entered the meat analog arena. Most replied because it’s a category primarily for vegetarians or vegans, some looked at me like I was crazy while others said it was a good question worthy of further consideration.

I’m still waiting for some brave meat company to enter the meat analog arena. Although I have yet to find such a product produced by a meat or poultry processor, innovative meat analog products keep entering the marketplace and are something to take note of.

Mintel reports Schnucks Supermarket in Memphis sells Mandarin Orange Crispy Chick’n. The product was launched by Garden Protein International and is meat-free — made from a blend of soy, wheat, organic ancient grains and vegetables. This vegan product claims to be better than carry-out and is ready to eat in eight minutes. It retails in a 10.5-oz. pack including a sauce pack.
Morningstar Grillers Vegan Burgers from Kellogg are kosher certified and claim to contain 84 percent less fat than ground beef. The burgers are meat-and cholesterol-free and can be prepared in the microwave. Product retails in a 40-oz. pack containing 16 veggie burgers. Product is sold at Sam’s Club among other places.

Trader Joe’s Organic Tofu Veggie Burgers are Quality Assurance International- and USDA-certified organic. Product is marketed as suitable for vegetarians and vegans, and retails in a 6-oz. pack of two. And Marinated Smoky Maple Bacon Tempeh from Turtle Island Foods and found at Whole Foods Market is made with organic soybeans, cooks in minutes and is easily prepared. This vegan-and certified-kosher meatless product retails in a recyclable 7-oz. pack, which is produced with 100 percent recycled paperboard and low-VOC inks. The manufacturer also claims to be “a proud supporter of The Humane Society of The United States.”

Another product sold at Whole Foods is Vegan Black Pepper Steaks in Black Pepper Sauce from Vege USA. Product touts being all-natural plus it contains no animal products or cholesterol. It is low in calories and sodium, is easy to prepare and is said to be an instant gourmet entrée. This microwavable product is made with non-GMO soy and retails in a 10.5-oz. pack.

These are just a few meat analog products on the market and they are impressive. I would assume much of the equipment and ingredients needed to make meat analogs would be similar to equipment and ingredients used to make value-added meat and poultry products. Perhaps government regulations overseeing the production of meat analogs differ in some way from making value-added meat and poultry products, which wouldn’t appeal to an industry already awash in a sea of regulations.

Nevertheless, there are an increasing number of consumers seeking convenient, value-added products they perceive as being healthier alternatives, as well as being better for the environment. And of course, animal activists and vegetarians, in particular, love the fact that such products contain no animal protein.

At present, the leading brands of frozen meat analogs include Morningstar, Boca, Gardenburger and Amy’s, just to mention a few. I’m waiting for meat analogs to be launched by such heavy industry hitters as Tyson, Smithfield, Cargill and Hormel. Will this ever happen? Time will tell.