VEGA News Item

Promotions in the Premier League - 11/08/2006
The market in veggie foods is undergoing changes bringing in new brands and names and restocking the freezers and chiller cabinets and freezers. Meat reducers and dairy-frees are beginning to dominate the demand and Premier Foods to meet it with a range of products from baked beans to Quorn sausages. Pages in the business press analyse the market. Now we take our turn – different mainly because we take the “slaves” view, interpreting the challenges in the broad view of animal welfare, human and non-human. None of these business pages measures the importance to the farmer and “his” animals.
The market in veggie foods is undergoing changes bringing in new brands and names and restocking the freezers and chiller cabinets and freezers. Meat reducers and dairy-frees are beginning to dominate the demand and Premier Foods to meet it with a range of products from baked beans to Quorn sausages. Pages in the business press analyse the market. Now we take our turn – different mainly because we take the “slaves” view, interpreting the challenges in the broad view of animal welfare, human and non-human. None of these business pages measures the importance to the farmer and “his” animals.

What walks off the supermarket shelves determines the destinies of human considerations of welfare, environment, convenience, presentation, taste, and – decisively – cost. We have to admit that pious words, endless recitations of dogmas, and specious divisions and definitions don’t count for much when the customer surveys the overwhelming arrays of special offers, bogofs, and new ways of serving up the mangled remains or secretions of mass-produced livestock, many adding cosmetic enhancement and free-ranging lures to silence qualms and unease. Brand names and own brands blur aspects of quality in which food loses many specific attributes, particularly in seasonality and the fortunes of farming and production: analogy with fuel is apt, for few motorists nowadays bother to fill up consistently at the pumps of one of a particular brand, preferring convenience over the relatively minor differences in their car’s performance. However, the consumer and the government are beginning to consider the wider significance of food, fuel, and the market in other resources that transcend the importance of minor sectors dealing with populations with aversions, religious, ethical or through various allergies or intolerances, possibly of genetic origin or due to metabolic or physiological anomalies.

Vegetarianism is losing its status in the food-market. The words that cut the mustard now are organic and in the free-from market and to caterers and restaurants the word vegan is hardly a one to flaunt, although it could be applied to products making other claims and appearing on the shelves of commodities high in sweeteners, fat, and salt: veggie enterprise has gained from commercial success with chocolate and bakeries more than with savouries to attract meat-reducers. The signal commercial success of dairy-free alternatives has received inadequate commendation and recognition from animal welfare organizations.

Developments in the markets are fascinating as they affect the expression and advancement of veggie principles. The latest financial results from Premier Foods illustrate the point as the battle of the brands and the fortunes of frozen, chilled, sous vide and microwaveable convenience foods affect the dwindling activity in the niche of foods with veggie labelling, approvals, and logos. Whatever veggies may think of these developments they will be able to say words other than cheese with a smile.

On the Hunt with Quorn
Over the last year or so Premier Foods has bought up Quorn and Cauldron Foods, so they are dominating the meat-free market. Heinz remains a stalwart of beany favourites and is selling off its interests in Linda McCartney foods to an American company. Premier Foods will thus own an enormous portfolio of food products, extending to Ambrosia custard and Branston pickle and is completing a deal worth £460m to acquire Campbell’s UK brands, which include Oxo stock cubes and Homepride cooking sauces. It is also working on a potential £1bn joint bid for other products, Premier’s market share in baked beans is running at about 10%, but it is girding up for hot competition with Heinz. Premier also sells fresh produce, including potatoes, but may dispose of this interest.

According to Premier’s results sales of Quorn have risen by 15% since the start of the year and they were being bought regularly by 1 in 5 of the nation’s households, up from 17.7% for the previous year. The firm attributes a doubling of its profits to the rising popularity of Quorn, which is at present the brightest item in its group, enjoying heavy development and promotion. Its new products include fajita strips, satay sticks, pizza, lasagne, cottage pie, sliced “meat” and even the McQuorn burger for McDonalds – something for every day of a meat-free diet, in fact.

Premier attributes the sudden surge in Quorn’s popularity “to have less to do with its reliable vegetarian customer base, as to its low-fat high-protein ingredient rather than a vegetarian quirk aimed at people who wished they could still eat sausages.” The firm estimates that 3 million vegetarians eat Quorn and that there is a growing number of “calorie-counting devotees”. Robert Schofield, chief executive of Premier Foods, states that “the key is the new families and new householders we are bringing into our market”.

Quorn is a mycoprotein of a type developed after WW2 to find plant-based protein enrichment in areas of hunger and famine with traditional diets (and force of circumstances) lacking in protein and calories. The results were tragically exposed in the Oxfam advertisements. However, the Green Revolution took some undesirable turns, in particular, the practice of growing high-yielding grain crops for feed before food, which would ultimately be provided by “animal machines” as sources of meat, milk, and eggs. Such intensification is now catching up on fish farming in even more concentrated forms. Torula yeast was an early example of a mycoprotein, and big names in British industry were among other enterprises seeking benign fungi, yeasts, and moulds worldwide as sources of plant protein, with mushrooms and truffles as possibilities. Quorn is derived from an organism isolated from soil at Marlow in the Home Counties of England (and therefore eligible for sale as a local product at Farmers Markets within the M25, and even more eligible than some of the cheeses). The Quorn organism is grown up in media based on a simple source of nitrogen (such as ammonium salts or, possible, urea) and carbohydrates. The organism is probably best described as a mould, except that the public might fight shy of a mouldy substitute or imitation meat, so the mushroom description was applied commercially nonetheless production of some esteemed cheeses depends on moulds; Quorn is sold quite widely in Europe, but its introduction into the USA met understandable opposition, the American Mushroom Institute objecting its labelling as “mushroom-based”. The mycoprotein word was brought in to overcome this cavil.

Manufacture of Quorn from the soil mould entails drying and mixing with “chicken egg” (presumably white of egg or hen’s albumen), which acts as a binder. The result is then textured, giving it some of the grained character of meat and pressed into mince or formed into chicken-like chunks. Quorn is therefore high in vegetable and animal protein (giving the meat of the egg a new meaning) and dietary fibre and it is low in saturated fat and salt. Like textured vegetable protein it met the veggie trends of the 1960s and 1970s, for which poromeric plastics were making progress in parallel as alternatives to leather for footwear, and furs were either being replaced by fakes or went out of fashion. Producing foods in vats using plant or animal cells rather than reliance on the slow and unselective growth of whole-organisms is nothing new, and it may be applied commercially to make biodegradable polymers as major constituents of packaging materials. Biotechnology has a lot to offer and to challenge veggies with. Pharmaceuticals are already demonstrating the potential.

One Man’s Meat: Food for the Gods?
The manufacturers claim that Quorn proved “a popular choice among the 50% of the population’s ‘meat reducers’ and the 1 in 5 youngsters who converted to vegetarianism”, and it “entered the mainstream, hitting the shelves at Sainsbury’s in 1994”. Although the undisclosed egg-content invalidated its claims for suitability for real veggies, the opportunity was lost when the veggie cause was showing much more muscle than now to find alternatives to the egg component (which invalidated claims that is was unalloyed vegetable protein): the Vegetarian Society limply bestowed its approvals, apparently accepting fees in return, and so scuppered enterprise in realizing an uncompromised association with animal welfare, whether 4- or 2-legged mammals or birds. Developments of replacements for animal milks, furthered by the soya industry in particular, have erupted into the supermarket chillers and shelves, with a vigor that meets the true interests of animal welfarists and veggies with vegetable protein offering the spirit of the unsullied milk of human kindness. So we hope Premier Foods introduces the enterprise and ingenuity to remove these blemishes on Quorn and to recognize the seminal commercial influences that the veggie movement in its undivided days of glory scored with “cruelty-free” foods, footwear, clothing, toiletries, and cosmetics.

We also remind the Food Standards Agency and manufacturers of labelling modifications to satisfy the interests of meat-reducers and dairy-frees (and consumers concerned about poultry foods and fish) in a manner considered from the beginning of detailed information on labels and available from websites: the proportions of animal derivatives in protein, energy, and fat in foods must be declared. Modern technology facilities this modification and it adds usefully to the customer’s deliberations entertaining a broad and discriminating purview of the food chain.

The Food Standards Agency spends much time and money sorting out definitions, resorting to DNA technology in some instances. It is, probably unwittingly, playing into the hands of the food and drinks industry to set definitions that may meet the demands of lawyers in dusky chambers but not consumers enjoying the advantages of free markets but with a blurred vision and some impatience with claims and advertising and food scares. The market for meat-reducers and dairy-frees (and of dairy reducers and meat frees and of meat and dairy frees – and not to say organics, fairtraders, and anti-GMs, and buyers in farmers’ markets) must see off the stultifying definitions the Food Standards Agency has inflicted on the veggie words and divisions (and the applied words, e.g. suitable, approved…). Discriminating customers must demand and read labels and pester Customer Affairs Departments. Appropriation by the live/deadstock industry of words such as meat and milk, without qualification, must be opposed. Plenty of usage (e.g. in the Bible) of meat, as in nut meat in the modern market, applies meat as the edible substance of a product, e.g. nuts, eggs, shellfish… Consumable milk comes from a number of crops, not just from the mammary glands of often illused mothers, so the word needs qualification – soya milk, cow milk, oat milk, goat milk etc. On this bases Quorn comes out dubiously meat-free. We must press for further developments to raise it to the status of an unblemished achievement and a spur to further competitive enterprise.  

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