It tastes like chicken, but it’s not. And it’s proving to be popular with New Zealanders.
Chicken Free Chicken, made by Sunfed Meats, is sold in about 60 outlets across the country and is in such demand the company can’t keep up.
It’s also the only alternative protein – a plant-based meat substitute – made by a New Zealand company.
Many New Zealanders are a lot of people looking for a meat alternative, so Sunfed is expanding and is looking for investors to help it go global
The Chicken Free Chicken “meat” is made from yellow peas, which are pulses – part of the legume family – and come from Canada.
Other ingredients include water, vegetable powder, plant, maize starch and natural yeast extract. The yellow colour of the product is a result of the peas it’s made from.
Sunfed says its product has double the protein of chicken, triple the iron of beef, no soy, no gluten, no chemicals, no genetic modification and no additive
Chief executive and founder Shama Lee says now the company has proven there is demand, she hoped to give New Zealand farmers the option to grow crops for alternative protein products
“Part of our expansion plan is also to grow the infrastructure in New Zealand – which is a massive piece of work – to then go backwards in the supply chain and give farmers a choice.”
Sunfed Meats also chose yellow peas because the plants were nitrogen-fixing, which means they take nitrogen from the air and convert it to nitrogen compounds, which helps plants grow
“If we have a crop that we are using for food that is actually good for the soils it’s grown in and the rivers, that’s a win-win any way you look at it.”
ALTERNATIVE PROTEINS IN NEW ZEALAND
Given the increasing popularity of the Sunfed Meats product, what’s their potential in New Zealand?
Alternative proteins are usually plant-based meat substitutes and edible insects. They provide protein with much less input than traditional sources like beef.
KPMG farm enterprise specialist Julia Jones says they are both a risk and an opportunity for our farmers – and she thinks the industry could get big.
Beef + Lamb is already running a project to work out its response to alternative protein advances such as plant based foods or cultured meat.
Some farmers have already raised concerns. Others say the answer is to go organic.
Alternative proteins are growing in popularity with those who have concerns about environmental and animal welfare. Internationally, large amounts of investment is going into alternative proteins and the interest in Sunfed Meats may be a sign of things to come in New Zealand.
HOW SUITED IS NEW ZEALAND FOR ALTERNATIVE PROTEINS?
“We’re very good at growing things. The reason we are good with pastoral farming is we are really good at growing grass – at growing a plant,” Jones says.
“There’s no reason why some of that grass area couldn’t become peas for ripple milk or whatever other plants that are required to produce plant-based proteins.
“That would be our expertise and skill, where we would shift into.
“I still don’t see why we couldn’t have a dairy farm that maybe has halved its cows or reduced its cows significantly and then some of that hectareage is used for plant-based protein growth.
Development of alternative proteins in New Zealand would be a step towards “agile” or more diversified farming.
“The first opportunity for us (farmers) is to be distinct in our natural grass-ded environmental farming, so making sure that we always have a positive or neutral impact on animals, people and environment, and also work towards regenerating the environment from how we farm. That’s animal farming – that’s using animals to produce the proteins.
“Using plants to produce proteins is potentially utilising some land that we need to stop farming animals on because it doesn’t work environmentally. We can utilise that to grow alternative, plant-based proteins.”
“Originally, alternative proteins, the concept was around filling the food deficit and reducing the amount of land required to produce food to make sure there was enough food to feed everybody.
“At that stage, they weren’t necessarily looking at the environmental, climate change type of things which it has evolved into.”
For New Zealand, producing alternative proteins would be less about fixing a food deficit and more about caring for the environment and maintaining a source of cash.
“My view is that the risk is that . . . if we end up with alternative proteins entering the commodity space their price point to produce is going to be so much lower that [natural products] won’t be able to compete.
“I think we need to do it. I think we need to add it to our toolbox. But should it be our only and main focus? I don’t [think so].
“Because I think then we are letting go of something that we really do have a distinct skill in producing – which is animal-based products – as long as we can do it so it’s not going to blow the environment to bits.”
WHAT SORT OR RESPONSE DO ALTERNATIVE PROTEINS GET?
“Really positive. Farmers actually get it. People are interested. They have really interesting views though. I was talking with someone the other day who was really happy with plant-based meat. [But they] would never eat cellular meat.”
Jones said she hadn’t come across anyone who thought alternative proteins were a “load of rubbish”.
“It’s not that people disagree with it . . . I think there more of that ‘what do we do with it? Where’s our role in it and where do we fit?’.”
There was some confusion with genetic engineering or modification – but not a lot.
“I often get from people ‘ew, I don’t want it’, but if we’re starving, any of us will eat anything, won’t we?”
WHEN CAN WE EXPECT ALTERNATIVE PROTEIN PRODUCTS TO BE COMMON HERE?
“A lot of reports are showing it’s actually quite a lot of capital required to enter into it.
“Also, our existing systems aren’t necessarily set up to understand what these foods are.”
Even in the United States, systems weren’t coping with the growing industry.
“The investment in it in New Zealand is huge. What are we going to get from that and how is it going to work?”
The industry was still in its infancy. “It is early days and they [existing companies] are probably in quite a niche space at the moment.”
WHAT SORT OF PRODUCTS CAN BE CREATED WITH ALTERNATIVE PROTEINS?
“It depends on what a protein looks like and people desire.”
One US-based company took plant cells and made them act like blood so the meat it produced actually tasted like meat.
“Other places have made the consistency [of the meat-like product] the same but the taste is [different]. So they don’t necessarily make it taste like it has blood in it.
“Think about it, there’s a reason a vegan doesn’t eat meat. Often it’s the blood and the animal.”
WHAT ALTERNATIVE PROTEIN FOODS CAN YOU BUY IN NEW ZEALAND RIGHT NOW?
“You can buy milks – almond mik, soy milk, all those things. Sunfed Meats products.”
DOES LEGISLATION NEED TO CATCH UP?
“Rather than our legislation . . . all you need to do is meet food safety standards and packaging standards.
“So in reality, it’s no different really, thank selling a steak here . . . You are still going to have to meet meet New Zealand’s biosecurity guidelines and I don’t think it’s going to make it any harder if you have an alternative protein as long as you actually identify the ingredients.
“There’s no alternative protein law or anything like that. It’s very much the food safety.”
There are still unknowns. Jones advises moving forward with caution.