MANUFACTURERS of plant-based meat alternatives are starting to pour big research money into finding ways to replicate attributes like taste, texture and smell, drawing on Australian scientists to map the way.
University of Queensland engineers and food scientists are working on a three-year Australian Research Council project in partnership with United States plant-based food company Motif FoodWorks aimed at 'recreating' the eating experience of beef in the alternative products.
The move has infuriated beef industry marketers and leaders, who say it is very clear now the plant-based sector has no ambitions of offering a genuine alternative product but rather its goal is to counterfeit real red meat.
This copycatting and coat-tailing has been a key concern raised in the current senate inquiry looking into vegan food products labelled as beef or meat.
Australian Meat Industry Council chief executive officer Patrick Hutchinson made the point on social media that the meat industry had invested millions into research to better its product, via many institutions, including The University of Queensland.
"Now these same universities are taking monies to blatantly mimic our product," he said.
"Why would an industry of our size - in 2019/20 Australia's red meat and livestock industry turnover was $69.9 billion - want to engage with universities and other research facilities that want to copy our product, without any recourse to the industry that has invested millions in the names and development of the products these venture capital factories now covet?"
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Consumers want more
Food marketing experts believe this research work is a sign of the recognition by plant-based product makers that their offerings will have to stack up on taste and eating experience far more to gain consumer traction.
Indeed, professor Jason Stokes, from UQ's School of Chemical Engineering, said consumers had started to demand quite a bit from plant-based products and wanted them to have the same characteristics as a normal meat experience.
"It's not just the taste, it has to be the texture as well, so the team want to understand the mechanics that occur during eating and simulate them in a laboratory," he said.
Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation's associate professor Heather Smyth said the work would investigate whether there were different ways of pre-treating plant protein in a way that makes it behave more meat-like in the first place, rather than just compensating burger formulations with various synthetic additives.
"This might include fermenting them, extracting them differently or structurally modifying the plant-protein," she said.
"Making the plant protein behave differently as an ingredient is really the space where we can have those breakthroughs, and already we're seeing some interesting results."
Plant Based Treaty
AT the same time, a fanatical global campaign aimed at 'transitioning' the world away from animal protein has made its way into Australian politics.
Animal Justice Party politicians have endorsed the Plant Based Treaty, which was launched in the lead-up to the United Nation's climate change conference in Glasgow, known as COP26.
The treaty's demands include everything from banning new processing plants, live exports and the conversion of any new land for animal feed production to introducing a tax on meat.
NSW Member of the Legislative Council Emma Hurst will issue a notice of motion in the NSW Parliament calling on the Australian Government to "recognise the negative impact of industrial animal agribusiness on climate change and commit to developing a strategy to transition towards more sustainable plant-based food systems."
While livestock industry representatives believe it is unlikely the Treaty will gain much political traction in Australia, they say it speaks to growing attempts by anti-livestock activists to use sustainability as a means of pushing their agenda.
"Our industry as a whole needs to be far more active in consumerland, and in wider society, in pushing back against this strategy, which is peddling grossly inaccurate information about the livestock industry," one producer and beef brand owner said.