AS UNAPPETISING as a laboratory-grown beef burger sounds, it ticks the boxes for a number of fast-emerging consumer “wants” and some agri-analysts believe it could well be as mainstream as a meat pie in the near future.
Synthetic meat is the high-profile star of a suite of alternative proteins, ranging from muscle-building supplements to burgers made of all sorts of ingredients, notching up phenomenal growth curves against red meat’s flat consumption rates.
While Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) research shows alternative proteins are currently consumed in 23 per cent of households against beef’s 91pc, many industry watchers are expecting that gap to shrink.
Driving the pull towards alternative proteins are some fast-growing global consumer trends around health, wellbeing, sustainability and ethics.
So is Australia’s beef industry mobilising quick enough or are our heads stuck in the sand?
MLA’s strategy is to run our own race but never take our eye off the competitors.
Marketing chief Lisa Sharp said the industry had a lot of tracking in place and monitored trends very closely.
“Popular proteins remain just that and there is a good reason,” she said.
“A key purchase driver is beef is a favourite - knowing the family will eat it. Nobody wants to waste money.
“Another is around taste and enjoyment and we know beef ranks above everything on this.”
Still, being conscious of what is driving the growth of protein substitutes means beef can tap into those demands and deliver via a supply chain consumers already trust, says Rabobank’s Tim Hunt, who manages food and agribusiness research.
The big agribusiness bank recently released a report examining why alternative proteins were starting to successfully compete for the “centre of plate.”
The report found the strong and persistent drivers supporting the current growth of alternative proteins would continue for the next five years, at least.
Rabobank believes alternative proteins could represent as much as one-third of total European Union protein demand growth by 2022.
“Rabobank believes that domestic market penetration in Australia will lag that in the EU and the United States, where current market development efforts are focused,” Mr Hunt said.
“Similarly, their adoption in the emerging markets we export to are also likely to lag, with most consumers trading up to traditional protein sources like red meat and dairy rather than embracing meat analogues.
“That said, the trends here often eventually follow what unfolds in the EU and US and it would be a waste not to learn from the experiences of producers there.”
Ms Sharp suggests two big megatrends at play present opportunities for red meat to play to its strengths.
The push toward health and wellbeing that includes a preference for natural products is a positive for beef, she said.
“We are a beautiful, natural product - we need to continue to promote that. Beef is a natural protein, a natural source of iron,” she said.
“Secondly, the growing consciousness of where foods come from and the ‘I’d like to make ethical choices’ concept is tipped to fuel the growth of substitutes.”
But beef has benefits here too which as an industry must be amplified, Ms Sharp said.
A major part of the recent “Australian beef is the greatest meat on earth” campaign was about promoting provenance - it’s natural and you know your farmer.
“Australian producers know care for cattle is paramount to ensuring the best eating outcomes,” Ms Sharp said.
“There are growing voices questioning, so we have to communicate our practices around welfare and stewardship of the resource base.”
Veteran beef marketer Richard Rains says if lab-grown meat is the worst disruptor the red meat industry gets, it’s not the end of the world.
“Maybe I have blinkers on but I don’t see why a meat eater would go for an alternate protein - it’s not cheaper and it doesn’t stack up on anything else,” he said.
“If we believe the economists, growth of red meat demand is far going to outgrow whatever demand there is for lab-based meat.
“We do need to be aware, and make sure our product is a better choice, but I don’t think that is going to be hard to do.”