‘Meaty’ designations for plant-based products are anything but confusing, argues The Vegetarian Butcher. They are, rather, necessary to facilitate the transition to a plant-based diet.
“Roll up your sleeves”
With the hashtag #MakeNoMisteak, The Vegetarian Butcher has been campaigning since a few weeks against the Belgian government’s intention to limit the use of meaty names and presentations for plant-based products. Such measures would complicate the transition to a more plant-based diet, while it is necessary to achieve climate goals, the producer of the “What the cluck” (vegan chicken) and “Vegeterrier” (vegan hotdog) says: “More than half of the food industry’s carbon emissions come from animal meat production.”
In what ways does The Vegetarian Butcher want to be part of the solution? We put the question to Hugo Verkuil, who has been the ‘Chief Everything Officer’ at the producer of meat substitutes for over three years. He makes no secret of his enthusiasm: “Rolling up your sleeves and trying to become a great butcher worldwide: this is a fantastic job. We are experiencing the biggest food revolution ever and it is great to be able to have a part in it,” he says from the Hive, Unilever‘s food innovation centre in the Dutch town of Wageningen, so to speak the Silicon Valley of the food industry.
The best of both worlds
Verkuil has worked at Unilever for quite a few years, all over the world: from Australia over Turkey to Malaysia. During a deal for the ice cream division with Burger King, he saw opportunities for The Vegetarian Butcher. “It worked out: suddenly we were all over Europe at Burger King. After that, I stuck around…”
Is The Vegetarian Butcher a kind of scale-up within the multinational? “We have the best of both worlds: on the one hand, we have a company with which we can react incredibly quickly, with a relatively small team. And on the other hand, we have the enormous sales, distribution and technology power of Unilever. As a result, we have expanded to as many as sixty countries in the past three years. You only get that done if you have great products and a great brand, under the wings of Unilever. That is how you actually get a food revolution going.”
This category is booming, says Verkuil: “If you see how many players are entering the market, how much shelf space is being added, how many new technologies there are, how many new types of proteins are being developed…. We are shifting gears every day. That is the advantage of a large organisation: we can scale up quickly.”
How does The Vegetarian Butcher stand out in that crowded market? “The good news is that there are now a lot of players in the market. The more noise, the more adoption and penetration. Important for us is taste, we have already won a lot of awards for that. We also have a beautiful, authentic brand that appeals to people in a positive way. We also have a wide product range: we are a butcher, so we offer the whole range. And we have the technology to develop the right taste and texture.”
Many of The Vegetarian Butcher’s products have soy as the main ingredient. It may be a bit of a controversial ingredient for some, but the brand is not abandoning it. However, the producer is also looking at other protein sources: “Soy is a fantastic ingredient if you look at the protein content and texture. It is a protein that has been used for hundreds of years and has proven itself. We are definitely going to stick to that. But besides that, we also have products with pea, and we have partnered with startups like Enough, a fermentation-based producer of mycoprotein, and with Algenuity, a specialist in algae. We are looking at diversity: those proteins bring different properties to further improve our products. We have a whole roadmap ready for the future, with the top ten proteins, two of which we have already announced. The other eight we are still keeping to ourselves….”
“This revolution is irreversible”
But will the category continue to evolve favourably in the coming years? Industry peer Beyond Meat has had to issue some profit warnings in recent months, investor confidence seems to be waning a bit and the current crisis is not making things better…
“If you look at the current share of plant-based meat in the total meat market, you are talking about 1 to 2 %. But if you look at how strong that market can grow, that is a different story. Plant-based milk is already close to 15 %. There is no reason to assume that our category would not go there – or that it will go much more, if you look at the underlying drivers. The expectation is that this market will become significantly larger than what it is today,” Verkuil stresses.
“But the path there has its ups and downs. You see that in other markets too, like electric cars for example. There will be years when you stay on a plateau, and years when you accelerate again. But the underlying drivers remain. This revolution is irreversible.”
Driven by taste
There are many reasons why consumers choose plant-based products: animal suffering, climate, health… “But certainly the market is also driven by taste, taste, taste. We now regularly have blind taste tests where consumers really start to doubt. That is when you know you are near a point of adoption.”
And what about the factor of price? Purchasing power is again at number one with consumers, and meat is often cheaper. It is even too cheap, according to some. Price comes into play, says Verkuil: the smaller that price gap, the greater the adoption will be. The still relatively young plant-based industry will have to achieve economies of scale throughout the chain to reduce costs. “We are working very hard on that,” he says. But above all, the move to plant-based needs to be low-threshold, he says.
“That is exactly why we have set up this #MakeNoMisteak campaign: because we are concerned about the restrictive guidelines that Belgium would like to introduce for the naming and presentation of plant-based meat. If you look at the Green Deal, the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy, you should actually encourage that plant-based diet.”
“Don’t slow down, encourage”
And the connotation with meat helps with that: “If you suggest people make a vegan curry, for example, they generally do not know how to prepare it and whether the kids will like it. That is the point: just make that spaghetti bolognese or that burger, all you have to do is replace that animal-based version with the plant-based one. It is as simple as that. Consumers are not confused. Indeed, they are actually looking for plant-based alternatives. Proveg’s European campaign has shown this before. You should not slow down that evolution, you should encourage it. This is the opportunity to get the Green Deal done.”
“It is not easy”, Verkuil admits. “But as I always tell my team: you can tell your children and grandchildren in twenty years’ time that you contributed to a huge revolution in food, which made a difference on so many levels.”