Europe is Lagging in the Race to Dominate the Plant-Based Foods Market

Despite having a lead in potential consumers, high tech ‘alt-meat’ is mostly produced elsewhere

Europe has a good head start in the global trend towards plant-based sustenance. Over the past five years or so, various reports indicate the number of vegans across Europe has at least doubled – but the strongest growth has come from a segment known as ‘flexitarians.’ This demographic seeks to reduce their consumption of animal protein (of all kinds, including dairy) and is in favor of vegetarian or vegan diets but the average flexitarian doesn’t necessarily put any label on themselves. These are people who might occasionally eat fish (pescatarians) or have animal meat once a week or once a month. The point of ‘flexitarian’ is in the title. These people are flexible but are definitely eating less animal protein. One study from a vegan publication shows that as many as 30% of western Europeans could be in this flexitarian category. Austria and Germany, along with Portugal, were highest on the list and the reason cited by people in those nations for choosing a flexitarian diet was first personal health, which was followed closely by a desire to work towards a sustainable environment. Flexitarians, in addition to the already committed vegetarians and vegans, are turning Europe into a stronghold for a global trend. It’s surprising to consider that possibly as many as a third of Western Europeans have begun considering themselves ‘post-meat eaters;’ in some way – to a greater or lesser degree – part of the plant-based diet revolution.

It’s not easy to find accurate statistics for dietary preferences, but if the 30% figure is even close to correct, such numbers are impressive and hard to find on any other continent. But here’s the problem: Europe doesn’t appear to be keeping pace in the alternative protein industry. In other words, the firms that are increasingly beginning to dominate among the impressive vegan statistics of Europe are mostly not European companies. The high-tech specialized so-called ‘new meat’ producers have until recently been mostly from the US, but Israel is now in the lead with startups there producing both plant-based 3D printed meat, as well as cell-based cultivated meat. Meanwhile in the US, business reports indicate that American conglomerates in both processed foods and the animal meat industry are investing heavily in alternative protein manufacturers, and absorbing them into their food empires. In short, unless Europe steps up its innovation and production game, the continent could be left in the unenviable place of having the planet’s largest number of affluent plant-based diet consumers, who are purchasing products from non-European sources.

The first thing European companies either currently in the market or considering a move into the alternative protein market should do is examine the competition closely. Why are the aforementioned Israeli companies taking a commanding lead? One reason has to do with technology. The combination of AI algorithms and 3D printing is producing a product that’s being hailed as the closest humankind has ever come to replicating animal protein. But beyond that, there are corporate philosophy and ideology changes at play. Instead of any frontal assault on meat-eating or even a passive-aggressive guilt trip strategy linked to the unsustainability of the meat industry, animal welfare, or the benefits to human health from reducing or eliminating the consumption of animal protein, Israeli startups are focusing on taste and texture. Their website features large pictures of what look like slices of delicious beef, sizzling kababs and plump sausages. And they unashamedly tell you that they are attempting to recreate meat. The company’s mission statement notes that people should be able to enjoy our evolutionary meat-eating heritage, and continue savoring the tastes and textures of animal flesh – but via high-tech science, not animals. There is no whiff of ‘preaching’ to the approach and instead you’ll only find mentions of the benefits to health and the environment after being presented with advertising copy that highlights the smell, taste, and mouthful of their alternative meats.

This marketing approach obviously would not work if the products being offered were not as advertised. But from reports that include a recent article in the Guardian featuring celebrity chef Pierre Marco White, these ‘alt-meat’ products are indeed living up to the hype. The Guardian’s Zoe Williams in her review on 3D printed meat notes that “the mimicry is extraordinary.” And is, “certainly the closest synthetic approximation yet.” Also quoted in the article was Ben Bartlett, a chef and barbecue expert who attested to the difference between this new species of meat substitute and what’s come before saying, “I judge on taste, texture and appearance – I’ve had so many bland and dull plant products. Then suddenly this came along and I was marking them 9s and 10s.” The plant-based future predicted by so many does seem to be slowly becoming reality, and animal protein substitutes are supercharging this future. Those with the right products and the right marketing stand to reap significant economic benefits while contributing to a healthier tomorrow. At present, however, Europe is lagging… which is unfortunate considering its strong position on the consumer front.