New alternative proteins report a wake-up call for red meat sector

NZ Story, Darryl Ward
Photograph: Darryl Ward.

Alternative proteins are likely to become a major competitor to some of New Zealand’s red meat products and the sector must respond with a clear strategy, according to new research.

A report commissioned by Beef + Lamb New Zealand (B+LNZ) has found that although alternative proteins are currently manufactured in small volumes, large scale production of burger patties and mince is likely to be a reality within five years.

The study has concluded a number of forces are coming together that are driving governments, investors and consumers to looks for alternatives to red meat. These include environmental concerns relating to climate change and the ability to feed the growing world population in a sustainable way; the use of animals in food production; and the place of meat in a modern diet.

Despite these challenges, the research demonstrates there is still a strong future for the New Zealand red meat sector. The report reveals an untapped demand for naturally raised, grass-fed, hormone-free and antibiotic-free red meat with consumers prepared to pay a premium for such products.

Sam McIvor.

B+LNZ chief executive Sam McIvor says the organisation commissioned the research to better understand the shifts in food, food production technology and consumer trends and distinguish the hype from reality.

B+LNZ’s research partner Antedote conducted the in-depth analysis of the market interviewing a range of experts across the value chain for red meat and alternative proteins including sociologists, influencers, chefs, nutritionists and regulatory bodies. Secondary desk research and analysis was also conducted globally with a focus on Europe, Asia and North America. Primary consumer research was also undertaken in the US and China.

“The technology to produce a consumer-ready alternative protein burger is here and is pushing for commercial scale.  We have seen an increase in the mainstream availability of alternative protein products in grocery aisles and quick service restaurants, says McIvor.

“However, the research also clearly articulates the significant opportunities and prospects for the New Zealand sheep and beef sector if we respond effectively to the rise of alternative proteins.

“That’s because the same forces driving the significant investment and demand for manufacturing alternative proteins, including concerns about industrial farming, health and the environment, offer us a chance to differentiate New Zealand red meat internationally.”

Free-range natural sheep and beef farming in New Zealand is a world away from intensive factory farming practices (feedlots) and ‘big food’, which has tarnished the reputation of red meat, he says.

“It’s vital we leverage our competitive advantage and rigorously protect it – grass-fed, hormone-free, antibiotic-free natural protein – to capture higher premiums and raise the value of our exports.

“In the US alone, retail sales of labelled fresh grass-fed beef including domestic and imports reached US$272 million in 2016, up from US$17 million in 2012. Sales are doubling every year.

“Yes, we do have some way to go. A significant proportion of our red meat is not currently commanding a premium compared to competitors in a number of global markets, and there is low consumer awareness of New Zealand’s natural farming systems.

“That’s why the work that B+LNZ and the sector is already doing to develop and activate the global origin brand and red meat story and develop a National Farm Assurance Programme is so important.”

The sector is also continuing to improve its environmental performance, he says.

“We recognise that agriculture has an environmental impact and we are working to minimise this. We’ve made some headway as the carbon emissions from sheep and beef farming are actually 19 percent lower than 1990 levels.  We are perhaps the only sector currently meeting New Zealand’s 2030 target, but we know we need to do more.

McIvor says New Zealand is in a prime position to take advantage of the unprecedented global demand for quality protein.

“The global population is swelling with a forecast one billion extra people to feed by 2030.  New Zealand’s total agricultural production can only feed about 40 million people.  We can’t and don’t want to try to feed the world.   Alternative proteins will have a place in this growing market, as will red meat.”

According to the study, New Zealand’s beef exports face the greatest challenge from alternative proteins, particularly to the US.

Currently, the US takes 50 percent of New Zealand’s beef exports and a large proportion of this goes into burger manufacturing. The development of alternative protein beef muscle cuts is much further behind and sheepmeat is not yet being explored.

The report identifies seven emerging ‘forces’ that make it increasingly likely alternative proteins will gain traction in the future.  However, a range of counter forces such as an economic slowdown stifling investment, or regulatory barriers, may also hinder the progress of alternative proteins.

It includes four scenarios and potential strategic responses aimed at challenging the red meat sector’s thinking and helping it to consider how to respond to these challenges.   These scenarios range from red meat being pushed to the side of the plate or becoming a speciality, a reluctant choice or the everyday preferred choice for consumers.

“We now have a better understanding of the technologies, business models and consumer trends and how quickly advancements are being made that could impact the New Zealand red meat sector,” says McIvor.

“Far from it being a crisis for red meat, we see these trends as a tremendous opportunity and we want to focus on raising the value of our exports and on gaining higher premiums.

“I believe we have a window of opportunity to position ourselves globally as leaders in that naturally raised grass-fed space, and we must grab it with two hands.

“We will be discussing the report’s findings with our partners over the coming months to determine what actions industry needs to take and B +LNZ’s role in that.”

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