By Will Verboven, Contributing Editor

It’s a topic that meat industry observers have been warily watching for some time, perhaps in the faint hope that it might go away. But alas, technology has a relentless way of making what seems impossible possible. I am referring to meat alternatives currently being produced in food laboratories that imitate popular beef and chicken products.

One research direction involves using plant-based replacement ingredients – beans, legumes, cereals, etc. The other direction involves growing actual new meat under laboratory conditions. Both, if proven feasible, could challenge the meat industry as it exists today.

Not too long ago, that prediction may have been just fearmongering, but if research continues at its present pace, truly competitive alternative meat products will soon be on the market. This is due to the massive investment being made in food research and in commercial companies involved in creating artificial meat products, specifically burgers, that not only taste like the real thing, but are cheaper to produce as well.

Some of the prominent investors in this industry are Cargill and Tyson, two meat processing giants. Do they know something the rest of us don’t? I expect their marketing brain trust has noticed that the development of new and artificial meat is close to overcoming the two biggest hurdles – taste and cost. Not too long ago, eating a “fake meat” vegetarian burger was about as much fun as eating chopped cardboard. But with enough investment incentive, food scientists have come up with a fake burger that looks, tastes, feels and is as juicy as a real meat burger.

The cost of the prototype plant-based burgers was exorbitant, but economies of scale have dramatically reduced that cost. Today, there are flavorful, plant-based hamburgers being sold in high-end restaurants and organic food stores for double the cost of regular hamburgers. A commercial-sized facility could grind out millions of such burgers on a daily basis at very low prices. Such marketing opportunities are proving irresistible to large food and meat production companies, hence their strategic investments.

The other research into creating “new” meat (also called “cultured meat”) uses actual meat protein and cells as a base, growing them under laboratory conditions into a real meat product. It’s a complex process, far beyond mashing a bunch of plants into an edible burger. When this laboratory new meat was first released, jokes were made about its astronomical cost, but anyone deluding themselves that the cost wouldn’t change would now be in for a rude awakening.

At the rate research is streamlining the process, this new meat will soon be in striking distance of the cost of the real thing. This type of meat will probably not compete well with the cheap, plant-based burger, but instead will compete with boneless roasts, chops, etc. Again, venture funds and established food companies are rushing to invest millions into this whole new industry.

Cynics might believe that the average consumer will not embrace eating these new meat products, thinking they will want their meat from the real thing – animal sourced – rather than from laboratories and soybeans. But consumers pay lip service to such things as animal health, the environment and other feel-good nuances when buying meat. In reality, most consumers still buy meat on cost and taste. But times are changing and new food lifestyle factors are becoming increasingly important to trendy, sensitive Millennials.

You can guarantee that marketers of the new and fake meats will be working the “no-animal was injured” promotion angle at every opportunity. Already, marketing words like “clean meat” are being used for the new meat. You can also expect both plant-based and new meat to be heavily promoted as being antibiotic, steroid, hormone and stress-free. We know how well these buzzwords have already negatively impacted the real meat industry. Putting “free-from” fake and clean meat next to same priced “real” meat in the retail counter will be the real test.

You can expect meat processors to jump on the opportunity when taste and texture issues are resolved, along with competitive costs. No big meat processor will want to be left behind. Processing livestock is a tough business, with endless consistency and quality problems. I am sure processors would love to manufacture a trainload of beans and lentils into perfectly identical burgers in an automated plant. Just think of the labor savings alone, and no by-products to deal with.

In researching this topic, one becomes rather depressed about the future of the traditional meat industry. I sincerely wish fake meat was all a fantasy, but the science and technology are unstoppable. Steps are already being taken to regulate and restrict the use of the word “meat” through government legislation. But I expect that will fall to lawsuits as we have seen with soymilk, almond butter, turkey bacon, etc.

A portion of the traditional cattle and meat industry will survive as a specialty business. But technology will most certainly change the industry, and if the progress made in the last 10 years is any indication, along with massive new investments, it will be soon.

So, what is the meat industry to do to at least survive in some form? I would like to hope that our agricultural academic institutions, producer organizations and, hopefully, our governments are furiously deliberating on what is ominously looming for the traditional livestock and poultry industries in North America.