A new plant-based meat has launched in New Zealand, but have we reached peak fake meat? And more importantly, are New Zealanders actually buying it?
Last year, Hell Pizza launched its infamous plant-based beef burger pizza and fast food chains Burger Fuel and Burger King began dabbling with limited edition meat-free burger options, but are these vegan alternatives really as popular as they seem?
Are we really seeing a "cultural shift" towards consumers turning away from actual meat? Or are meat-free marketers employing smoke and mirrors a bit too liberally in their claims?
Independent data always provides a good starting point.
Local meat-consumption data from the OECD shows that Kiwis continue to love their meat, despite a decline in red meat consumption. In 2019, New Zealanders ate 74.9kg of red meat, sheep meat, poultry and pork per capita. This is up significantly from 66.7kg in 2010.
What these numbers show is that New Zealanders aren't necessarily changing their carnivorous ways; it's simply a case of our animal preferences changing. Chicken just happens to be the meat of choice these days.
Despite the numbers showing New Zealand's enduring affinity with meat, the newest plant-based "meat" manufacturer to stock our supermarket shelves says the country is an ideal market for meat-free alternatives.
Vegan start-up Next! Foods, which produces what it brands as hyper-realistic "meat" that sizzles like bacon and pulls apart like chicken, has launched its product down under.
Like other major vegan meat producers, Next! Foods' protein is made of soya and mimics the texture of animal protein through a process called high-moisture extrusion, which uses a process of heating, cooling and pressure to replicate the texture of animal proteins.
The Singapore-based company manufactures its meat in the Netherlands and its product first hit the market 10 months ago. It has recently gone on sale in New Zealand, with its bacon product sold in over 100 Countdown supermarkets. Its chicken product is expected to become available next year.
Available in 1500 stores worldwide, it first started out in the meat section of Coles in Australia. It is now also available in France and Spain, and company founder Biren Doshi says Next! Foods is now focusing its efforts on the New Zealand market.
"New Zealand is a key market for us because it is a food-loving nation. New Zealanders love their bacon, they love their chicken, and we feel that New Zealanders are very much open to the idea of plant-based meats and are progressive in their thinking," Doshi told the Herald.
Vegetarian and vegan meats have been available for more than two decades, but Doshi estimates that New Zealand's plant-based meat market has recently grown quickly to an estimated $30-40 million annually on the back of more consumers adopting flexitarian and lower-meat diets.
When viewed against the over $10 billion contribution of the New Zealand beef and lamb industry in terms of local and export revenue or the billion-dollar chicken industry, it's clear the alternative meat industry still has some way to grow out of its niche.
Next! Foods' strategy for growth is to be stocked in supermarket chains and independents and to be used as an ingredient in food-service among fast-food chains, restaurants, cafes and stadiums. It is currently in talks with local chains but would not disclose any details.
But this familiar approach employed by alternative meat companies, both locally and abroad, doesn't always last.
Last year, for instance, Tim Hortons pulled all Beyond Meat products from its coffee and doughnut shops across two of Canada's biggest provinces because sales simply weren't living up to the hype. In the fast-moving cafe and hospitality world, menu items need to sell or they're quickly jettisoned.
Controversially, Next! Foods considers its product to be meat, despite it not containing any animal products.
Doshi believes it is fine to call his meat-free products "bacon" or "chicken" despite neither being pig or chicken derived. It is a debate that is happening globally.
Will fake meat ever replace the real thing?
Colleen Ryan, partner of consumer insights agency TRA, says she does not believe that sales of vegan meats will ever outstrip those of traditional meat products, but she said the prospect of alternative protein had got consumers and businesses excited.
"Meat for Kiwis has always been a big part of culture, and that's why I think we're seeing meat sales do very well - it's part of that reverting to what we know and getting comfort out of life; that's what Covid [in recent months] has led people to do when things have been so awful," Ryan told the Herald.
Most Kiwis would likely be alternating between eating regular meat and using vegan substitutes, and consumers were seeing plant-based meats as another option, she said.
"We're seeing quite opposite things happening like reverting to traditional meat but also experimenting with other food and proteins," said Ryan. "I think it is a mistake to think of it as something we'll move from meat to whole-heartedly."
Ryan said she did not believe New Zealand had reached peak meat alternatives, and would likely experience a second wave of more obscure and innovative products.
"We've got it in fast food now, we can buy it in supermarkets, and very often it looks like meat products - like a burger pattie or sausage, whereas we may see those proteins getting more experimental in terms of what the product has to look like and whether it has to replicate something that is a meat product or can it just be something in its own right - the interesting space will be innovation."
Ryan believes, in time, vegan meat companies will move away from branding and marketing their products as chicken or bacon, for example.
"At the moment, though, because the market is new, they need something to compare it to so people know how to use it or what meal occasions they may use it for. Everything is catered to the traditional proteins but I'm sure within time they'll move away from that."