The recent decision by food giant Unilever, owner of Hellmann’s mayonnaise, to sue U.S. startup Hampton Creek over the branding of its eggless “Just Mayo”, is perhaps the first shot in a battle between a food industry dominated by animal-based products and a growing number of plant-based food producers challenging the status quo.
It’s an uneven contest, but one that might ultimately see meat and dairy products substantially replaced by foods that have no connection to animals—the cherished goal of animal advocates and environmentalists who oppose factory farming. It could also present a unique opportunity for Canadian agriculture to meet the growing demand for plant protein.
Unilever claims that calling an eggless spread Just Mayo is false advertising, while Hampton Creek points out that its marketing is all about the fact that the product is eggless, so it’s obviously not trying to mislead consumers. An online petition supporting Hampton Creek has emerged, as supporters of plant-based products rally behind the company and its cruelty-free, planet-friendly ethics.
Hampton Creek is just one of a number of startups using intensive research and innovative processes to create plant-based products whose taste, texture, and price will tempt not only vegans and vegetarians but also flexitarians who are open to reducing their meat and dairy consumption.
Launches of vegan and vegetarian products have doubled over the last five years and the companies involved have attracted significant investment. Hampton Creek is backed by Bill Gates and Asian billionaire Li Ka-shing, while another meat-free startup, Beyond Meat, is supported by Twitter founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams.
One of the latest entries into the market is Muufri, which is bioengineering yeast to produce milk proteins, giving their synthetic product the same taste and nutrition as regular milk—but with no cows involved.
These newcomers follow the success of companies like B.C.-based Gardein (recently purchased by a U.S. food company), which reportedly expects $100 million in retail sales this year. The company’s meatless products are found in more than 22,000 supermarkets in the U.S. including Target, Whole Foods, and Safeway.
While all this is clearly good news for those concerned about the growth of inhumane, unsustainable livestock production, it also presents some economic opportunities—especially for Canadian agriculture. Many of the new meat alternatives include pea protein (it’s a key ingredient in Just Mayo and Gardein’s products, for example), which Canada, as the world’s largest pea producer, is in a unique position to supply.
In fact, Canada is a world leading producer of plant-based protein in the form of pulses (peas, beans, chickpeas, and lentils), with a more than five-fold increase in pulse production since the 1990s. These are used in making more traditional alternatives to animal protein (think hummus, dal, falafel, chili) but are mainly exported. Industry analysts say Canadian pulses are “adored abroad but ignored at home”.
Pulse Canada, a national association of pulse growers, is trying to change that by promoting the culinary, health, and environmental benefits of pulses to Canadian consumers and food processors. The federal government has contributed financial support to this effort but it’s miniscule compared to support for the meat industry (including an infamous $826,000 grant to an Ontario meat company to research a sausage that doesn’t burst open when cooked and a reported $1.3 million for Alberta’s XL Foods plant, scene of a massive recall of E. coli-tainted meat).
Canada should be taking advantage of the growing demand for non-animal protein by injecting substantial support for research, development, processing, and marketing for its unique pulse industry. Not only would this bring economic advantages, but perhaps we might be a leader in providing a more humane, healthier, and environmentally sustainable alternative to raising and slaughtering animals for protein.
It’s time Canada became a plant-protein superpower.