The future of food - risks and opportunities of meat substitutes
Authored by Frank Matthiesen, Senior Risk Consultant, Casualty and Practice Leader for Food and Beverage at AXA XL
Consumers the world over are reducing the amount of meat they eat for ethical, health and climate reasons. This presents a huge opportunity for producers of meat-substitutes to market alternative protein sources. But there are a number of potential unknown areas that will require careful risk management and planning, as Frank Matthiesen, senior risk consultant, casualty and practice leader for food and beverage at AXA XL, explains.
In the coming years increasing numbers of people are expected to reduce the amount of meat they consume or to stop eating it all together. Whether for ethical reasons, health reasons or to reduce their greenhouse gas footprint, many people are replacing meat with substitute proteins all or some of the time.
Currently around 79 million people worldwide follow a vegan diet – that’s about 1% of the global population. If you add in those that eat a vegetarian diet that figure rises to about 14%. And many more of us are eating so-called ‘flexitarian’ diets or heavily reducing the amount of meat we consume for a variety of reasons.
Reducing the amount of meat in one’s diet may help to reduce exposure to certain diseases, such as heart disease and some cancers, and contaminants. Eating less meat can potentially also help with weight loss and may improve overall gut health.
The farming of meat, notably beef, is also a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, particularly CO02 and methane. Meat substitutes are thought to reduce the carbon footprint of food by up to 75%.
Added to this, the growing global population – expected to reach 10 billion by 2050 – means there will be more mouths to feed, and a need to find ways to do that efficiently, cost-effectively and with as little climate impact possible.
This presents a considerable opportunity for food producers to find ways to provide protein alternatives to meat. But with opportunity comes potential risk and there are various areas in which careful risk management, risk engineering and research will be needed to reduce potential liabilities.
Alternative protein sources
There are three major sources of non-meat protein substitutes; plant-based substitutes; insect-derived protein; and cultivated or laboratory-produced meat.
Plant-based alternatives, like lentil burgers for example, may be relatively unprocessed if produced on a small artisanal scale. But on a more industrial scale they may be more highly-processed and contain additives such as colouring and preservatives and so on.
Cultured or laboratory-produced meat is produced by deriving stem cells from animals. It requires certain additives to ensure sterility, among other things.
Insect proteins are derived either from larvae or adult insects which are fattened on by-products, such as food waste, and then processed to extract protein.
While there are many benefits to these three types of protein substitute, each – to an extent – introduces a new potential area of risk for producers.
While plant-based products are thought to confer some health benefits, such as a reduced likelihood of infection or disease, there are some potential health areas which are less tested and well known. For example, there may be issues around the digestibility of plant-based proteins and, as with anything new, there may be unknown risks such as potential allergenicity of certain ingredients.
When processed on an industrial scale, plant-based meat substitutes may contain relatively high levels of sugar, salt and other additives intended to preserve the products or add flavour. Certain additives used to give these products texture – like methylcellulose and carrageenan – may cause unintended intestinal effects if consumed in large quantities.
There are also potential concerns about the nutritional benefits of some products – it’s vital, therefore, that products are correctly labelled and that health claims are verified, tested and not overstated.
When protein is cultivated in a laboratory there’s the potential for biological hazards, such as microbiological contamination, to occur. There may also be risks around what is, essentially, a form of genetic engineering.
Additionally, it’s not clear if consuming lab-produced meat is necessarily any different from a dietary-health perspective than eating animal-derived meat. Again, producers must be careful to label products correctly and be mindful of not overstating health claims.
Insect-derived proteins have been hailed as “the future of food.” But there are still some potential areas of risk. Firstly, as with plant-based protein, it will be important to understand the nutritional value of products – and to be sure that they are correctly explained and labelled to consumers.
There is also the potential for unknown allergens to be present in insect-derived protein; crustaceans, for example, which are similar in many ways to some insects, are a known allergen for many people.
The way that insects are ‘farmed’ to produce protein may also involve certain risks. For example, there’s a potential for an accumulation of contaminants when insects are fed on by-products such as food waste and there’s also a potential for microbiological contamination to occur.
And while all meat substitutes have the potential to reduce the carbon footprint of what we eat, their production still involves processes and farming techniques that could have potential environmental impacts. As with health claims it will be important for producers of meat substitutes to be able to stand up any claims of emission reduction and not to overstate this benefit.
The production of food is, for obvious reasons, highly regulated the world over; the health and safety of consumers is paramount.
When it comes to meat substitutes, regulators are – and increasingly will – looking into regulation and approval of these products.
There are, currently, no specific regulatory obstacles to producing low processed plant-based foods; ‘normal’ rules apply, so to speak. For some of the more highly-processed meat substitutes, however, including both plant-based food and proteins derived from other sources, there may be a need for approval from legal and regulatory bodies such as the European Union and the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA).
Singapore became the first nation state to approve lab-cultured meat in 2020. The regulatory process is underway in the United States, with FDA approvals for certain products expected this year and next. But there are currently no approvals for lab-produced meat underway in the European Union.
Risk experts will, of course, be monitoring regulatory developments closely and it’s important to keep abreast of any changes or potential hurdles.
It’s inevitable that in the years to come, more and more of us will likely be turning to meat-substitutes for at least a part of our diet. And food producers large and small are already highly involved in finding ways to feed a growing population that seeks to eat more healthily and ethically, with a reduced environmental impact.
As with anything new, there will be risks that evolve and emerge as this trend gains pace. There are, however, steps that producers of alternative proteins can take, working with risk experts and engineers, to try to reduce these potential exposures.
Taking steps to minimise food fraud, ensuring that processes minimise the risk of cross contamination, exerting care to ensure that foods are correctly labelled and that health and environmental claims can be proved are all ways in which food producers are managing the risks that might present themselves as these foods gain in market share.
The future of food is evolving, and with it the opportunities and risks are evolving too. With careful risk management and attention to science, however, it may be sooner than we think that the content of our plate could change substantially.
About AXA XL
AXA XL is the P&C and specialty risk division of AXA which provides property, casualty, professional and speciality products to industrial, commercial and professional firms, insurance companies and other enterprises, here in the UK and throughout the world. With underwriting teams based in the US, UK, EMEA and Asia Pacific regions, we can make decisions close to the markets you serve and work with you to tailor cover to your business needs.
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