Californian plant-based meat startup Impossible Foods made headlines around the world this month debuting its first pork substitute at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. The plant-based meat company, famous for its burgers, is gearing up to launch it’s Impossible Sausage later this month as well.
But while Impossible Foods has been getting much of the big press, its UK-based rival The Meatless Farm has been quietly preparing to take on the US and global market with the help of a new big marketing campaign and a product that is leaner and healthier alternative to its competition.
“When people talk about the US companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, it’s all about the money," says founder Morten Toft Bech. "But when they talk about Meatless Farm, it’s all about the food,” he tells Sifted.
The latest 4oz Meatless burger, which is in UK retailers including Sainsbury’s and Morrisons, as well as Whole Foods in the US, is 230 calories — which compares to 240 calories in an Impossible Burger and 250 calories in a Beyond Meat Burger.
Meatless’ version also has slightly less saturated fat, containing just 3.5g, which is less than half of the 8g in an Impossible Burger and far less than the 6g in a Beyond Burger. It also scores lower on overall fat content and higher on fibre.
That, in essence, is how the startup is positioning itself to compete with the bigger players. And it is going to need all the help it can get, as the startup is outgunned in terms of funding, hype and high-profile backers.
Beyond Meat is valued at over $5bn, has tripled in value since its public listing last year and has pulled in hundreds of millions in cash from everyone from Katy Perry to Bill Gates. Impossible Foods received $300m in a single funding round — that’s half the amount that went into European plant-based startups over a whole year — and is now valued at $2bn.
Meanwhile, the Meatless Farm has quietly raised somewhere around £10m, mainly from family offices and private investors.
The meatless Farm story
Research for Meatless’ product began in 2015 when Toft Bech’s wife — who is a vegetarian — got frustrated over the fact she couldn’t find a healthy alternative meat product to feed the kids. “She said: ‘I wish there was just a product that I could buy to use in normal meals like spag bol’,” Bech says.
Equipped with a business background, but no experience in food tech, Toft Bech approached a research lab in Reading to ask for help on developing a healthy plant-based mincemeat, ultimately embarking on an 18-month research project. In the end, the mincemeat tasted “quite okay”, so he decided to launch it as a business.
Fast forward three years and the startup now pumps out 1,000 tonnes in plant-based mincemeat every month. The mince is either packaged up or made into burger patties before winding up on the menu of over a thousand pubs and restaurants. It is also distributed to supermarkets in Canada, the UK and the US.
One pub chain that stocks the burgers is Wetherspoons, which has 900 outlets serving food across the country selling 200,000 Meatless meals a month. Its burgers are also stocked in Greene King pubs, which is the biggest pub chain in the UK, according to some measures.
Tasked with constantly renovating the vegan beef mince and exploring new products is a team of over 15 scientists and chefs, who have their own lab and test kitchen built into the startup’s three-story offices.
Taking on the US
The Meatless Farm is not the only European startup experimenting with plant-based versions of meat, but it stands out as one of the few to have made the plunge into the US market.
In September, it struck a deal with Whole Foods to exclusively stock the product for six months in 450 shops across 43 states. It has also recently started to be served up in US restaurants, including at New York’s Pomodoro Rosso.
This brings it directly up against Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, both of which have drummed up an enormous level of excitement for their faux meat products.
Both US companies also boast high-tech techniques for conjuring a meaty taste out of plant-based ingredients. Impossible Foods has developed a synthetic method of producing “heme” — the molecule that’s in actual blood, using plant-based ingredients, while Beyond Meat spends a massive $5m a quarter on research and innovation.
Toft Bech, meanwhile, has spent the past year building a leadership team and has brought in some impressive names from the European food business.
In November, Jesper Højer, former chief executive of supermarket chain Lidl, was appointed as chairman of Meatless Farm. This came just a couple of months after Coca-Cola’s head of media, Lone Thomsen, joined as director of marketing. Robert Woodall, former vice president at Kellogg, is a board advisor.
The startup is also strategically located right next to Leeds University — one of the most highly rated universities for food tech research in the world. This gives direct access to state-of-the-art food tech equipment.
But Toft Bech says his main selling point against US competitors is the healthiness of his products.
Asked how the Meatless Farm plans on competing with its US competitors, Toft Bech underscores the fact his product is a leaner alternative, with less saturated fat. “We basically have a cleaner version of these products,” he says.
Over the coming months, Bech and his team will double down on the clean living strategy by releasing an “even cleaner” burger as the next iteration of the Meatless burger.
Indeed, the Impossible and Beyond burgers have been hit with a wave of criticism over the fat, sodium and calorie content of their products. That's potentially a problem given that one of the main reasons for following a plant-based diet is the health benefits.
Of course, there is nothing to say that the Meatless Farm's competitors will not follow suit and create a leaner version of their burger, with each company constantly creating new iterations of its core product.
But Toft Bech says he’s broadly not concerned about the competition. “Generally, we're not really competing,” he says. “We’re more moving together to create a market.”