Are alternative proteins setting the pace in understanding consumer needs?

Everywhere you look at the moment there is some kind of commentary or reference to the potential threat to our traditional industries from alternate meat or milk proteins. Growing environmental, ethical and health concerns are often cited as the main reasons for increased interest in these types of products, particularly among supposedly discerning and health-conscious consumers. Even as you read this you are probably thinking not another one, so please bear with me.

Let us consider alternative meat proteins. There are strongly-held views by industry commentators that alternative meat products derived from plant-based products or grown in petri dishes pose no threat to the meat industry. As the argument goes, how can alternative meat proteins possibly threaten the position of naturally produced meat products on the basis of the large array of ingredients and refined processing techniques required to produce these proteins?

I am sure this argument provides sufficient comfort from which to carry on as we have always done and ignore the possible challenge from alternate meat proteins. But this is cold comfort from my perspective, particularly when you consider the significant level of investment and research effort that is going into the development of alternative meat proteins to mimic the attributes of naturally produced meat products.

The wave of new food manufacturing techniques will continue to get better and better, to some point in the future where alternative meat proteins could potentially become indistinguishable from the real thing. So what does this all mean for the meat industry?

In a recent Rabobank report titled Watch Out ... Or They Will Steal Your Growth! it notes that the market for alternative protein products will be much smaller than that of the animal protein market over the next five years. It goes on to say, 'however, it is not the total market size, but the growth rates that alternative protein products are witnessing - and are expected to continue seeing - that is the most significant.'

Within the report it notes that alternative proteins have the potential to steal a material share of the growth in animal protein consumption in the EU over the next five years, and is expected to represent one-third of total protein demand in the EU. Whilst a slight increase is expected across the United States (2%) out to 2022, Rabobank expects stronger demand growth to occur on the west coast of the United States and in parts of the north-east, as well as in certain metropolitan areas.

The future consumption of alternative meat proteins is expected to increase among consumer groups that actively choose not consume animal products, and potentially price sensitive groups that are apathetic in their selection of protein sources. Manufacturers and marketers of alternative animal proteins have been very successful in tapping into changing consumer food preferences, and are creating new markets for themselves to meet such demands once the domain of a small group of vegetarians and vegans.

So how well do we know our consumers in being able to meet their future needs and expectations?

The millennial generation (individuals born between 1982 and 1996) is shaping and transforming the food industry as both discerning consumers and active participants within it. As a generation that grew up with the internet, they freely and frequently share their thoughts and buying habits via multiple social media platforms.

Millennials are said to have ethical stances on issues and are conscious of the impact of their food choices on society and the environment. They also expect the companies they deal with to be engaged, transparent and authentic, which has seen a move to purchase locally produced foods and a shift away from big brands.

A recent study by Chicago-based CBD Marketing of more than 12.5 million social media posts and other online commentaries by millennials largely substantiated many long-held assumptions about their food and beverage consumption and shopping habits. And as simple as this is - being environmentally-conscious was seen as 'hot', and lack of transparency is 'not'.

To meet the expectations of current and future consumers about our environmental credentials, transparency of supply chains and ethical obligations on animal welfare and employment practices, we need to better articulate and engage in platforms that communicate directly with our consumers, as well as with individuals considering careers in the primary industry.