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How plant meat is coming of age in India

Over the next five to seven years, the smart protein market in India may touch $1 billion on the back of early adopters in cities. The top 50 million in India’s vast consumer pyramid is the first target.Premium
Over the next five to seven years, the smart protein market in India may touch $1 billion on the back of early adopters in cities. The top 50 million in India’s vast consumer pyramid is the first target.

  • Amid viral outbreaks and climate change, an alternative meat industry is taking root. Can it be the next big thing?
  • Success is possible because there are strong triggers. Aware consumers, particularly in cities, are worried about climate change and viral outbreaks. There is a health imperative too.

NEW DELHI : Before the midnight hour, on 31 December, this writer microwaved a packet of frozen ready-to-eat shami kebabs for five friends. One of them had turned vegan and wouldn’t touch it—shami kebabs, after all, are mostly made with minced red or chicken meat. A second friend liked the burst of old Delhi spices. The third and the fourth chewed into the kebab but kept silent. The fifth sniffed a difference. “The aftertaste," she said, “is not quite that of meat."

The kebabs were recently launched by a startup, Greenest Foods. At its factory in Delhi’s Okhla, the company’s research and development team took a dry fibrous substance made from soy and chickpea protein isolates, rehydrated it with coconut fat and flavourings, and ultimately textured what is essentially a plant-based product to mimic real meat.

Getting the taste closer to the real thing is the big deal. Companies such as Greenest Foods say they are getting better with every new version as researchers, food scientists, academic institutes and chefs collaborate with entrepreneurs to propel India’s alternative protein sector—sometimes called the smart proteins industry—off the ground.

This growing tribe, of both new and established companies, has seen the market sizzle in countries like the United States. In 2020, plant-based burger firm Impossible Foods raised $700 million in funding; in 2019, Beyond Meat, another plant-based meat maker, went public. The firm turned in revenues of $305 million for the nine months ending September 2020. Indian startups think similar success can be scripted in the subcontinent with a range of products, from nuggets and keema to sausages and egg substitutes.

Success could potentially be scripted because there are strong triggers. Aware consumers, particularly in cities, are worried about climate change, the pressures that animal husbandry puts on land, water and electricity. There is a health imperative too. Plant-based egg substitutes, for instance, have no cholesterol; there is also less chance of pathogen contamination, leave alone diseases like the avian flu. India is in the middle of an avian influenza outbreak with confirmed cases of the disease in nine states. As of Monday, the flu has been reported from districts in Kerala, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. Such outbreaks strengthen the case for meat alternatives.

The market, nonetheless, is not just plant-based. A smaller set of companies globally are also “cultivating" meat—where muscle cells from animals are grown in a reactor and hence the process does not involve slaughter. A third set of firms use fermentation technology in which bacteria is engineered to produce a protein of choice. Put together, India today has about 25 such companies, estimates The Good Food Institute, a non-profit that promotes alternatives to animal products.

“Most of these companies became serious in the last 18 months. And we think this number will keep doubling until we hit about 150 within the next few years," said Varun Deshpande, managing director at The Good Food Institute India.

Quick service restaurants are getting into the act. When popular food chains champion a product, the market expands at a faster clip. In December 2020, Domino’s Pizza introduced “The Unthinkable Pizza". Jubilant FoodWorks Ltd, which holds the India franchise for Domino’s Pizza, said that the pizza is made from plant-based proteins and yet has the sensory properties of chicken.

Over the next five to seven years, the smart protein market in India may touch $1 billion on the back of early adopters in cities, Deshpande projected. The top 50 million in India’s vast consumer pyramid is the first target. “There is much more momentum on the plant-based side because it is easier to do from a capital standpoint. Cultivated meat is early in its life cycle as a category. It is going to take long for companies to bring products to the market," he noted.

While the sector is clearly at the next frontier of food tech, there are doubts about whether the products would work beyond the well-heeled. “When incomes rise, people buy more animal protein. It is probably a matter of prestige that a family is able to afford meat. Would people give up on real meat?" a food-tech entrepreneur, who didn’t want to be identified, asked.

Many in India don’t eat meat due to religious reasons. They have little reason to try out a product with the sensory appeal of meat (national surveys though show that only about a third of Indians are vegetarians). Finally, making a business case might be hard at the moment for the entrepreneurs at the vanguard, considering how pricey alternative meat and eggs are as of now. Plantmade, a company that has collaborated with the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi for research, has priced its plant-made liquid egg at 350 for 450 grams, or an equivalent of 10 eggs. The price of a chicken egg in Delhi is trending at 6.

“There is a time for everything," Amit Jatia, vice chairman at Westlife Development Ltd, which operates McDonald’s restaurants in west and south India said, while talking about alternative proteins. “When you introduce something in 311 restaurants, you need scale on the supply chain end. Second, the reality is that Indian mass consumers can barely afford to eat meat every day. Since plant-based is two-three times costlier, it is a niche market at the moment," he added.

Supply chain readiness is the critical link between lab-scale and commercial-scale. Entrepreneurs are beginning to quickly learn the ropes.

Cultivating consumers

Prakarshi Pulkit, a former chef at ITC Hotels, is the chief of innovation at Plantmade. The company started in 2020 and makes its liquid eggs from proteins derived from moong beans.

“I broke over a lakh eggs during my tenure as a chef," he said. “I have high expectations. I want our plant-based egg to taste the same as chicken egg. Currently, it tastes about 80% the same when used in the right recipe—like in a French toast or a pancake," he added. As the company works on improving the taste, it also has to sort out the supply chain. Pulkit wanted to sell to restaurants, but the hospitality industry usually buys in low quantities.

Maintaining the supply chain for a cold product at low volumes is expensive for a startup. He could sell the liquid egg frozen but restaurants will take a long time to first thaw and then cook the egg. Plantmade is therefore working on a powder form which will have a longer shelf life.

In any case, the hospitality route was closed for most of 2020 because of the pandemic. That forced startups to sell directly to consumers. It wasn’t such a bad deal. Companies were able to generate customer insights and early feedback, which helped fine-tune the products further. Greenest Foods, for instance, found that millennials and Gen Z consumers were driving its sales of plant-based shami kebabs and keema. Over 60% of the orders came from those in the age bracket of 18-34.

“We launched the kebabs in late-October through a direct-to-consumer website. It is not just the vegans or the vegetarians but it is a rapidly increasing cohort of meat eaters who want to try our product," Gaurav Sharma, CEO at Greenest, said.

Blue Tribe, a company co-founded by Sandeep Singh, the managing director of pharmaceutical company Alkem Labs, is another plant-based meat company. The firm has launched plant-based nuggets that apes chicken, using protein derived from soy and peas. Sohil Wazir, chief commercial officer at Blue Tribe said a host of products are in the pipeline. Keema (which will resemble chicken/mutton) and sausages (resembling pork meat) will be launched next.

“We have started with a direct-to-consumer platform. We are in Mumbai, Pune and Delhi. In the next six months, we want to be present in 10 metros," Wazir said. “We are looking at quick service restaurants as a volume driver but that might take a while." Making the products available in the retail channel is his last priority because of the high margins that retailers corner.

The next frontier

In December 2020, the Singapore government’s food regulation authority, Singapore Food Agency, approved the sale of meat cultivated from animal cells, a development expected to shore up the cultivated meat industry globally. Where is India when it comes to lab-grown meat?

In 2018, Siddharth Manvati and Pawan Dhar, two researchers with a background in drug discovery, founded Clear Meat, India’s first cultivated meat company that is attempting to grow minced chicken. The company has created proof of concepts and is focussed on patenting its technologies.

Simply put, growing an animal muscle cell in a lab starts with placing the cell in a reactor that has a broth filled with nutrients such as vitamins, proteins, and other inorganic materials that mimic blood. It is almost like replicating what goes on in an animal body inside a reactor. Food technologists foresee a future where tall reactors will populate farm lands one day; millions of cells would be grown and harvested continuously. Nevertheless, what goes into the broth can be exorbitantly expensive and this makes cultivated meat pricey. A lab-grown steak could be 10 times the price of conventional steak. But the costs are expected to drop quickly as companies pour in research dollars and innovate.

Manvati said Clear Meat could price the minced chicken at 800-850 a kilo, or closer to the price of processed meat, when the product is ready in about 16-18 months from now. Nonetheless, the meat grows awfully slowly in a lab—to grow 100 grams of minced chicken, the company takes between nine and 12 days.

Meanwhile, India’s research institutes are also playing a role.

The government of India’s department of biotechnology granted a 4.6 crore research grant to the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad and the National Research Centre on Meat in 2019 to create cultivated meat from sheep cells. The research is ongoing. The Good Food Institute said that it will work to establish Indian and international industry partnerships in order to commercialise the research.

The services sauce

India, in fact, is poised to play an important role in the global smart protein industry by offering products and services. Pune-based Proeon Foods, for instance, extracts and develops plant-based proteins, which it sells to alternative meat companies.

The company has created protein ingredients from fava beans (which goes into plant-based sea food options), amaranth (for alternative dairy applications), moong bean (egg replacement products), chickpea (meat replacement) and hemp seed (nutraceuticals).

“We give startups our proteins along with some base recipes," Kevin Parekh, co-founder at Proeon Foods, said. “We can co-develop solutions as well. Larger companies may want us to develop a completely new source of protein but it’s a longer process," he added.

Then, there is Richcore Lifesciences in Bengaluru, a biotech company, that offers development and manufacturing services to companies who want to use fermentation technology to produce proteins. Outsourced production to India—as in the case with any other manufacturing sector—can cut costs substantially for global companies, and, by extension, lower the price of alternative meat over the course of this decade.

“New-age companies in San Francisco and Europe that make egg proteins without eggs and milk protein without cows know how to make it at the lab level. However, in biotech, the important shift happens from lab-scale to commercial scale. The new companies lack expertise and experience," Rajesh Krishnamurthy, executive director and head of global business development at Richcore Lifesciences, said.

The company is building a plant near Bengaluru to host huge reactors totalling about 180,000 litres that would manufacture animal proteins at a mass scale. The facility would be ready by February 2021.

“The world needs capacity. We can become the farmers of the (smart protein) world," Krishnamurthy said over a Zoom call. His eyes lit up.

The promoters of HT Media Ltd, which publishes Mint, and Jubilant FoodWorks are closely related. There are, however, no promoter cross-holdings.

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