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Editor’s Take: Is fake meat just a flash in the pan?

How much real interest is there in fake meat?

By that I mean not the sort of interest you see in the equity markets where share prices have been driven through the roof because some investor doesn’t want to miss the next Microsoft or Amazon. Or the latest media hype, of which there’s been no shortage.

Hardly a day passes without yet another new story about another restaurant chain adding them to their menu. Or yet another entrant arriving into the already-crowded sector trying to capture a share of what appears to be a fast-growing market.

Is it for real? Or is it just the latest food fad that will crescendo, then slowly fade away, like a receding wave, only to eventually be replaced by the next big thing?

We’ve certainly seen that before. Just a few years ago everyone was part of the gluten-free craze. Then meat consumption was on the upswing because carbohydrate-free diets encouraged gorging on animal protein.

No doubt there are still adherents to the philosophy, but it’s been awhile since I’ve heard anyone waxing on about it.

This week something that was a first of its kind passed over my desk — a news story on Canadian icon Tim Hortons pulling back from its Beyond Meat breakfast sandwich.

It will still be available in Ontario and B.C., apparently, but it’s being dropped from all the other provinces and territories.

Parent company Restaurant Brands International downplayed the significance of the move, noting that it was always intended as a limited time offer to assess demand.

According to food and agriculture researcher Sylvain Charlebois, B.C. has the highest rate of veganism in the country and Ontario has the highest rate of vegetarianism, which likely explains why they remain on the menu there.

In some cases the hype appears to be driving a bit of a backlash. More than once I’ve seen ingredient lists for fake burgers compared to beef burgers, with those sharing the information noting many compounds they couldn’t identify, much less pronounce.

Meanwhile in Saskatchewan, there’s been a kerfuffle over fake meat and the beloved Roughriders football team. An advertisement for A&W featured Riders fans in green and white garb trying the restaurant chain’s Beyond Meat burger and offering their opinion.

It didn’t take long for one rancher to take to the internet to share her disappointment. Adrienne Ivey said that seeing the Roughriders symbol in the commercial made her clench her teeth in frustration and broke her heart as a beef producer and a sports fan, according to a CBC news report.

The club’s public relations department fired up the damage control machine, set the spin cycle to ‘high’ and began meeting with, and apologizing to the Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association.

The Roughriders noted they had no control over the content of the A&W spots, and added the club continued to support the province’s farmers and ranchers.

It probably felt like a win to the province’s beef sector, but only time will tell for sure. In public relations there’s a phenomenon known as the “Streisand effect.” It’s so named after the mega-star’s attempts to suppress photos of her Malibu beach house.

In reality, what happens when people are aware information is being withheld from them is that they go out and actively seek it out. One has to wonder, how many meatless burgers were served up in Regina in the following days?

The gluten-free fad burned out not because of the campaigns in defence of grains, but due to the power of dietary habits that slowly reasserted themselves once the hype wore off.

In the case of plant-based ‘meat,’ the same is likely to unfold. Consumers are curious enough to try it, and some will likely become converts. But unless these products become significantly cheaper, or start tasting better than wannabe burgers, they’re unlikely to displace beef burgers. Notably, A&W was quick to point out, in the wake of the controversy, that real burgers “remain the most popular choice on our menu.”

Meat producers can’t ignore shifting markets. Likewise, grain farmers should take these developments with a dose of caution. In reality, the farming community gains little — and potentially loses a lot — by getting dragged into debates over whose protein is best.

Farmers are in the protein business, period. Pulse farmers, meat farmers, grain farmers, and oilseed farmers in this province are often one and the same. Insisting consumers only hear one side or another of the protein story will likely prove counterproductive in the long run.

A far more important message to convey is that when farmers do their job well, consumers can safely choose between meat or plant-based sources of protein, confident that they have healthy, nutritious, sustainable and ethical options.

About the author

Editor

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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