In a perfect world, we would never again have to think about how the sausage gets made. To make that fantasy a reality, we have to start thinking about how the veggie sausage gets made.
The plant-based meat revolution – heartened by the wild success of products like the Impossible and Beyond Burgers – is based on the concept that we can make animal meat obsolete by using technology and plant protein to mimic meat’s taste and texture. But so far, this tech-driven approach hasn’t quite extended to production technology.
Since the dawn of factory farming in the 1970s, the meat industry has been on a constant trajectory of optimization in production. Even today, industry interests are pushing for faster line speeds at processing plants, with the pork industry requesting a lift on the current limit of around 1100 pigs an hour. Even at the initial rate, this subsection of the industry alone was producing more meat in a handful of weeks than the plant-based meat industry produced in total in 2018. It seems that the meat industry is still the reigning champ of moving fast and breaking things.
Sausage-making may be unpleasant, but it is impressively efficient.
The plant-based meat industry, on the other hand, has been slow to address the unique production needs of its products, and as a result, it has been slow to scale. Demand for popular plant-based options has outpaced supply to such a degree that Bloomberg keeps a crowdsourced, interactive “outage” map to show where the Impossible Burger is unavailable due to product shortages.
The solution most companies are taking to this problem? Partner with co-manufacturers to use meat industry machinery and facilities. Instead of mimicking the efficiency of the meat industry’s production technology, the plant-based meat industry is using the same machinery straight off the shelf. Beyond Meat, for example, produces much of its product out of beef processing plants in Georgia and California. In this way, plant-based meat companies are victims of their own success: turning to stopgap options to match the market’s appetite without solving the underlying production puzzle.
This doesn’t just denote a lack of innovation. It’s hobbling the ability of plant-based meat companies to economically increase production volume, and as such, to lower costs. Even as sales of plant-based meat climbed to $3.7 billion in 2018, production volumes fall far short of the 105 billion pounds of animal meat produced each year. Despite a major uptick in sales numbers, the actual volume of plant-based meat on the market still makes up a miniscule one-fifth of one percent of the meat industry. This isn’t surprising when you take into account that plant-based options are two to five times more expensive than factory-farmed meat. Even as the dollars roll in, the amount of plant-based meat on the shelves isn’t skyrocketing. With these stats, it’s not surprising that the majority of consumers still turn to animal meat for cheap, widely available protein.
The plant-based meat industry can make significant progress by addressing some of the fundamental incompatibilities of meat-industry machinery with plant-protein processing. After all, the meat industry didn’t become the behemoth it is by failing to optimize its production tech.
Plant proteins may be made to taste like meat, but they don’t function like animal proteins. Meat industry machinery is calibrated and automated to deconstruct carcasses and prepare cuts and grounds made from specific animals. It’s less effective at producing meat from plant sources, which have markedly different functional properties in terms of moisture retention, protein structure, and so on.
Another option plant-based meat companies are turning to is a food extruder: a machine initially designed to form foods like pasta and cheese puffs, and also to structure protein. While these are sophisticated machines, we are only in the early days of redesigning them for the massive scalability plant-based meat production requires right now. This means that even with highly skilled operators, it can be difficult to achieve product consistency and avoid costly errors. These machines are also expensive to begin with, with price tags reaching into the millions for a single unit.
Some of the potential changes to machinery could be as simple as adding internal sensing and modifying certain preset functions on otherwise similar machines. Other options represent a more revolutionary redesign of the entire flow of the production process that allow for products to be made continuously instead of batch-by-batch, and with substantial energy and input savings to boot.
To outcompete the old guard, the plant-based meat industry has to stop ignoring how the veggie sausage gets made and adopt new machinery that’s actually optimized for the industry’s unique needs. When this happens, plant-based meat can finally become widely available at an accessible price.
Until then, we’ll be stuck with shortages and stuck with the status quo.