About the person: Alison Rabschnuk brings 25 years of advertising, marketing, and sales experience to 'The Good Food Institute' (GFI) working with brands including Taco Bell, Levi Strauss, Gap, Kiplinger's, and Parents magazine. She is a graduate of Wellesley College and is now Director of Corporate Engagement at GFI. Alison works with leading foodservice companies, supermarkets, and restaurants to help increase the quality and quantity of plant-based products available on the market.
What is the Good Food Institute and what do your responsibilities entail?
The Good Food Institute (GFI) is a nonprofit organisation using markets and innovation to promote plant-based and 'Clean Meat' (lab-grown meat) as alternatives to industrial animal agriculture. We are a passionate team of scientists, entrepreneurs, policy influencers and communicators directly supporting the growth of the plant-based and 'Clean Meat' space.
As the leader of The Good Food Institute's Corporate Engagement team, my job is to work with restaurants, grocery stores, food service, and food processing companies to help increase the quality and quantity of plant-based products available on the market.
When was the first time you ever heard of 'Clean Meat'?
Even though I've followed animal welfare issues for decades, I only learnt about 'Clean Meat' a year ago when I read 'The Humane Economy' by Wayne Pacelle, CEO of HSUS. It was completely eye-opening and exciting to me, and I realised that my 25 years of for-profit experience could be valuable to this nascent field.
In your opinion, is 'Clean Meat' a better term to use than in-vitro, lab or cultured meat?
Absolutely. It is called 'Clean Meat' both as a nod to 'clean energy' and to the meat itself — which requires no antibiotics, produces no bacterial contamination, and will not harm animals. 'Clean Meat' production requires far less land and water than conventional meat, produces a fraction of the greenhouse gas emissions and eliminates the severe environmental repercussions of animal waste and contamination via runoff.
Since you are responsible to work with leading businesses in the food sector such as supermarkets, what would you say is their current stance on 'Clean Meat' and plant-based alternatives?
There is a lot of interest from food processors, restaurants, and grocery stores to learn as much as possible about plant-based meat and 'Clean Meat' so that they won't miss out on the business opportunity to capitalise on this dietary shift. These companies are interested in understanding the landscape of companies already making plant-based meat, dairy, seafood, and egg products as well as learning about the research that has been done on the naming and marketing of these products to increase their sales. There is a major shift happening as people adopt 'flexitarian' diets more than ever before. We're seeing in research studies from Mintel and Nielsen that plant-based meats are largely being eaten by people who also eat animal proteins, rather than as a choice purely for vegetarians and vegans. There is enormous opportunity for restaurants and food companies to capitalise on this dietary shift by offering protein-rich plant-based entrées and products.
Currently, the benefits of eating plant-based alternatives is frequently highlighted in the media. Have you experienced an increase in requests for 'meat innovative' products by supermarkets, restaurants and/or start-up companies? How do they plan to increase plant-based food options?
Yes, plant-based eating is a hot topic! We have recently started outreach to the top 100 U.S. restaurant chains about adding more plant-based entrées to their menus. While this has resulted in some productive conversations, we feel that we are at the tip of the iceberg in regards to the opportunity that exists in working with restaurants to change their menus to match consumer demand for plant-based foods. There's been so much recent plant-based product innovation and we hope restaurants will start incorporating some of them into their menus.
What concerns or challenges do you usually face when talking to companies in the food business?
Restaurants need to be convinced that the consumer demand for plant-based entrées is compelling enough to go through the expensive and time-consuming process of adding new menu items. With food processors, it’s not a question of if they’ll start creating plant-based products, but when and how. A company may decide that acquiring an existing manufacturer might be better than creating a product line from scratch. Furthermore, for more traditional food processing companies, there is the question of whether to launch new plant-based products (and eventually 'Clean Meat') under their brand or potentially a new one. There can be pros and cons to both.
Children are the future. Are catering services which provide food to schools, part of your clientele? If so, what steps are taken by them to share more plant-based options?
One of the projects we're very excited about and will be bringing to the public in the next few months is a guide to help plant-based meat manufacturers understand the process and considerations for selling plant-based meat products through K-12 school food service. The guide will provide an overview of various child nutrition programs and their requirements (e.g. the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program). While schools participating in child nutrition programs are not required to provide plant-based alternatives, they are able to make substitutions or offer options so long as the child's key nutritional requirements are met. We think the most likely way for this to happen in the near term is for plant-based meat companies to produce their products to meet the requirements and the expectations of school foodservice professionals. It's exciting to hear of innovative steps some schools are taking — like the Los Angeles school district's vegan pilot program or the vegetarian public school in Brooklyn — and we want to inspire more food service professionals to explore these options for their students.
The majority of the population can't, or rather prefer not to give up their meat or animal based products although they are aware of the impact it has on their health, environment and animals which are linked to industrial farming. What do you think will move people to change their eating habits?
One of the things that really drew me to working at GFI was the different approach they are taking to this issue. Rather than working to change individual behaviours through the lens of health or ethics (whether those ethical motivators be animal welfare or the environment), GFI is focused instead on simply fast-tracking better options. Many different studies have consistently shown that when you really look at what causes people to make choices about what they eat, the three primary and most consistent factors are taste, price and convenience.
Many people say it's all about the taste and have concerns that 'Clean Meat' doesn’t taste like conventional meat. Others don't feel comfortable eating 'Clean Meat' because it's grown in a lab. Have you, or one of your colleagues ever tried 'Clean Meat'? Please share your experience with us.
I personally have not tried 'Clean Meat', but I have spoken with members of our team who have. We’re told the taste, texture and smell are really almost indistinguishable. I know for some who have been vegan, it was so realistic, it actually created an uncomfortable feeling for them. The important thing to focus on, however, is not getting vegans to eat 'Clean Meat'. The best thing for the planet and health is a plant-based diet. However, for those people who want to eat meat, I'm confident that when there are two options side-by-side in the protein case — and one of them is fully traceable, truly produced in a clean way and provides some health benefits, the choice will be easy.
Where do you see the benefits for farmed animals by increasing the share of 'Clean Meat' and plant-based alternatives in our diet?
A question we get frequently is “what will happen to the farm animals” if plant-based and 'Clean Meat' take off? This question demonstrates the true lack of understanding most people have about the conventional meat system. The staggering number of farm animals bred, raised in filthy conditions, and subjected to horrific slaughter practices exists only because of the demand for meat. As demand subsides, supply will slow.
Several major players in the food industry have realised we are in the early days of a major shift, and have bought their way into the market in order to capitalise on that. For example, Tyson Foods, the largest meat producer in the United States, invested in meat-replacement startup Beyond Meat as a way to begin exploring alternative proteins and protect their business from the material risks associated with an over-reliance on factory farming.
Our goal is that all meat is either 'Clean Meat' or regenerative. To the degree that we can turn people off of conventional meat, those looking for meat from farmed animals will go to regenerative. Our success will help high welfare farms, not harm them.
What is your biggest wish for the future regarding human nutrition?
I have several wishes! My first involves education and transparency about our food system. The average American doesn't really know the truth about factory farming, and I believe that if they did, more people would start eating a plant-based diet. I also wish that the many research studies from credible institutions like Harvard's School of Public Health and Johns Hopkins that link consumption of animal products to diabetes, heart diseases, many cancers, and obesity, would get more mainstream press.
I also wish that culinary schools would focus more on their curriculum on cooking with vegetables and other plant-based proteins. Most chefs today have a lack of knowledge of how to showcase vegetables and assume that protein must come from meat, eggs, or fish. John Fraser, chef of Michelin-starred NYC restaurant Nix, has shown diners just how innovative you can be with vegetables. Luckily, we do have other plant-based chefs like Chloe Coscarelli, Tal Ronnen, and Chad and Derek Sarno. But, we need more, and we need more mainstream restaurants to hire chefs like them so that plant-based options can start appearing on more menus nationwide.
My last wish is to go to any grocery store and visit the Protein Counter, which is where plant-based proteins would be merchandised right alongside animal meat. When these plant-based products are only sold in the all-natural section of the grocery store, they are not being seen by the majority of grocery shoppers. Only when they are merchandised alongside their animal counterpart products will consumers understand the many choices they have when deciding what to feed their families.