Carnivores everywhere were shocked (shocked!) this October when the World Health Organization came out with a report that labeled bacon and hamburgers as carcinogenic. It was more bad news for meat-based businesses such as McDonald’s, which in 2015 will close more U.S. stores than it opens, the first time this has happened since at least 1970.
Americans’ meat consumption is still alarmingly high, just over 200 pounds of red meat and poultry per person in 2014 (second in the world only to Australia), and that number is down from early-2000s highs. True vegetarians are a rare breed: they make up just 2% to 5% of U.S. adults. But a 2012 Gallup poll found that a third of Americans regularly eat meatless meals, driven by health concerns and a growing public awareness of the negative environmental consequences of raising animals for food.
Here in the U.S., a small contingent of venture-funded startups are trying to capitalize on the move away from meat, at least somewhat successfully creating vegan or vegetarian stand-ins for things like chicken, hamburgers, and mayonnaise. Beyond Meat, which sells faux chicken strips and burgers; Hampton Creek, a maker of eggless “mayonnaise”; and Impossible Foods, which promises a juicy plant-based cheeseburger soon, have collectively raised $245 million in funding from VCs and investors such as Bill Gates and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff.
In the Netherlands, however, the pressure to go meatless, or at least less meat, is felt even more intensely. With nearly 17 million people in a land area about the size of Maryland, it is the most densely populated nation in the world. It also has the highest density of livestock of any European country. “We have a small country with 100 million chickens,” says Atze van der Goot, a professor of food technology at Wageningen University. “People are more and more aware of the negative aspects of meat related to health and diseases. There is also a an active political movement in the Netherlands stimulating alternatives to meat.”
One result of this is that Holland has become a center of innovation in lab-grown meat, edible animal muscle tissue grown from stem cells rather than harvested from living animals. In October of 2015, the southern Dutch city of Maastricht hosted the First International Symposium on Cultured Meat, and Maastricht University physiology professor Mark Post is credited with creating the first lab-grown hamburger, in 2013. A startup called Mosa Meat aims to commercialize the burgers within five years.
Another Dutch startup, the Vegetarian Butcher, takes a more conventional approach–but one more likely succeed for reasons, of cost, complexity, and the not-inconsiderable yuck factor of lab meat. Like Beyond Meat, the Vegetarian Butcher (makes chicken strips and “hamburger” meat from soy and other vegetable ingredients. But it has out-innovated them. Since being founded in 2010–by ninth-generation dairy farmer-turned-vegan Jaap Korteweg, and Niko Koffeman, a member of the Dutch Senate representing the Party for the Animals–the company has collaborated with academic partners at top Dutch universities to develop an astoundingly diverse line of vegetarian or vegan versions of everything from chicken and beef strips, ground beef, and bacon, to shrimp and tuna, to more typically Dutch dishes like croquettes, shawarma meat, and smoked eel salad.
In addition to its own flagship stores in The Hague
and Amsterdam (the Amsterdam store has closed, but one is opening soon in Brazil Berlin), which mimic the look and feel of old-school butcher shops, Vegetarian Butcher products now sell in some 3,000 outlets throughout Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Now profitable, the company is focused on expansion. In just three weeks in the fall 2015, the Vegetarian Butcher raised 2.5 million euros in a bond offering through NPEX, a direct-investment platform for small- to medium-size Dutch companies. The money raised will help fund construction of a larger production facility in the city of Breda.
And late this fall, the company also announced a technological breakthrough: the world’s first vegan steak. Not strips, not chopped meat, but a dinner-plate-size slab of flavored soy and vegetable mush that uncannily mimics not just the flavor but the chewy fibrousness of a real chunk of beef.
The basic technology behind the Vegetarian Butcher’s best-selling chicken strips (or Beyond Meat’s) is a machine called an industrial extruder. Soy powder and water are mixed and forced through what is essentially a pasta maker on steroids, which subjects the mixture to changes in heat and pressure, pushing out a long belt of protein “dough” with a fibrous structure that breaks apart and shreds a lot like cooked chicken.
Additional pulling by hand helps create an even more chicken-like texture. The pieces are soaked in marinade for flavor. Different extrusion techniques mimic the texture of beef, pork, and other meats. The chicken stands in well enough for cooked thigh meat to convince the likes of Mark Bittman and Ferran Adria.
Building a realistic steak substitute required a different type of machine. Called a Couette shear cell device, it was developed by van der Goot and graduate students at Wagneringen and Delft Universities, with funding from the Vegetarian Butcher and the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs. The Couette cell uses two nested cylinders, with space between them to accommodate a fluid mixture of soy protein and water. By turning the cylinders at different speeds, adjusting the space between them, and varying the temperature, the fluid can be spun into fine-layered structures that resemble the structure of a steak. (It’s somewhat similar to a cotton candy or ice cream maker.)
The device can use up to 90% less energy than extruding machines–which should help bring down the price of meat substitutes, now on par with organic meat–and can be used to make much larger pieces of protein, with a consistent meaty texture throughout. At the announcement of their breakthrough, the researchers showed off large, brisket-like sheets of their first fake steaks, which are colored with rice-based reddish dye. The company is eager to scale the technology for commercial use, and hope to do so within the next two years (though they’re in discussions about coming to the U.S., there is no definitive plan at this date).
“I think we are the only producer of meat analogues who are so focused on meat replicas that at least equal the qualities of meat,” says Koffeman. Success in this regard could go a long way toward changing behavior: according to a large 2014 study by the nonprofit Humane Research Council, 84% of vegetarians and vegans eventually go back to eating meat; about a third of them blame a craving for meat for their downfall. Really good faux meat could be a sort of methadone, or Nicorette, to curb hankering and prevent backsliding. And the price is right, too. At first, the cost of their faux-beef will be the same as a kilogram of real steak–the equivalent of around $11 per pound now. In the future, economies of scale could make it much cheaper.
For now, U.S. consumers will have to travel to sample the goods, but Koffeman, who also runs a health-insurance cooperative for Dutch vegetarians, has been working to change that. “We’re talking with the cheerleaders of the plant-based revolution in the U.S., like Hampton Creek, Impossible Foods, and others, about cooperation,” he says. “We’ll be there soon.”