From plant-based egg to clean meat chicken

Just CEO Josh Tetrick talks about creating a scrambled egg replacement, the lab-cultured chicken he's releasing later this year and other products on the horizon.

2 August 2018
meatmeat alternativeNPDplant-basedpoultrysustainabilitytechnology

Food innovation often brings the most unlikely ingredients into the spotlight. That’s certainly the case with Just’s plant-based scrambled egg, which utilises mung beans to create a product that looks, tastes and cooks in the pan like a traditional egg.

To develop something that would require less land and water to grow, as well as nullify the animal welfare issues often associated with chicken eggs, Just sourced plants from over 51 countries around the world, searching for something that could deliver the right texture, mouthfeel, colour and shelf life. These functional aspects were measured against molecular features – for example, protein content – to narrow down the search base.

image credit: Anastasiia Sapon

It was a very experimental process, according to Just CEO Josh Tetrick, with some versions of the liquid egg going green in the pan, while others failed to scramble and still others tasted like wood bark. Eventually, the researchers whittled the various options down to the mung bean.

Already launched in the States and Hong Kong, Just recently announced that its scrambled egg alternative will be coming to Europe, having signed an agreement in principle with leading European egg product producer Eurovo.

“What we’re doing with Eurovo, from my perspective, is the reason I started this [company] over six years ago,” Tetrick tells Food Spark. “It is probably the best example of what we’re trying to do. A recognition that it’s not just going to be us. A recognition that there are really innovative, forward-thinking companies that have been around for a long time that are about making the food system better.”

But Just Egg is merely one aspect of a company that has plans to make inroads into baked goods and cultured meat.

So what else should we eggs-pect from Just?

Targeting big growing categories

Tetrick is a relative newcomer to the food industry. He started Just (formerly Hampton Creek) in 2012 with a desire to build a better tool kit for manufacturers.

“If you think about the food system today – and this is the case in Western Europe, Asia, North America – you have a whole bunch of issues,” he explains. “You have everything from people going hungry, to the food system accelerating climate change, to the food system accelerating type 2 diabetes and obesity, to the food system causing a lot of issues in terms of animal welfare.

“More than anything, we’re trying to look at that and say, how do we in our lifetime shift all of that unsustainable stuff to a world where the food system is sustainable?”

To that end, the San Francisco-headquartered operation has recruited a team of 55 R&D people, made up of computational biologists, food scientists and Michelin chefs. This team has so far assembled a seemingly random stable of products – mayo, salad dressing and cookie dough among them – but what unites them is a focus on “big growing categories that have issues,” according to Tetrick. Those issues include excessive processed sugar as well as unsustainable egg production.

Condiments, baked goods and eggs all rake in billions worldwide, but Just is gearing up to launch its most ambitious creation yet: lab-cultured chicken, which is scheduled for release by the end of the year.

A sneak beak

Why start with poultry? “More people consume chicken protein than any other kind of animal protein except for chicken eggs,” according to Tetrick, who adds that it was the meat product where Just’s technology and product knowledge was the furthest advanced.

Eventually, he hopes to develop 'clean' (i.e. not from slaughtered livestock) versions of beef, pork, and a whole host of other products – both in the meat sector and beyond.

“Ultimately, we’d like to be in the business of looking at butter, looking at ice cream, looking at bluefin tuna, looking at all sorts of different meat and seafood, a whole host of baked goods.”

Tetrick envisages two main paths to market. The first is for the company to develop and sell products itself, as it already does in the States and Hong Kong.

As important, however, is partnering with manufacturers who will make and distribute Just products alongside their other brands, as Eurovo will do with Just Egg in Europe. “I think that’s where change and an exponential impact really happens,” says Tetrick.

In his quest for a global presence, the 38-year-old hired a GM to expand the China arm two weeks ago, while planning the brand's Japan launch and exploring how best to enter South America.

What would an Alabamian do?

It’s notable that despite making a splash with its plant-based scrambled egg, Just has elected not to go down the plant-based meat route. This strategy comes down to one of Tetrick’s guiding principles: “Everything we do, I try to think, how would a person in Alabama react to this?”

“My person in Alabama is kind of like my proxy for the regular person around the world. My time being raised in Alabama kind of keeps me out of the San Francisco bubble,” he explains.

“I think that creating plant-based meat is exciting, it’s good, I hope more of it happens… [but] going back to my friends in Alabama, if faced with a choice of plant-based chicken or real chicken (assuming they’re the same price), will the majority of them choose plant-based chicken? I find that hard to believe.

“In the realm of meat, because of the naming, because of the textural challenge, I think it’s simply more pragmatic and ultimately more effective to create meat that’s meat, as opposed to the plant-based version of it.”

Labelling laws

There is of course a huge debate at the moment about what can actually be termed ‘meat.’ In America, the US Cattlemen’s Association have been lobbying the USDA and Congress to ensure that only beef, pork or chicken that has been raised and slaughtered can be called ‘meat’ – thereby denying plant-based alternatives and cultured meat makers the right to label their products as such.

Last year, the European Court of Justice ruled that plant-based dairy products could not be described as butter, cream, cheese or milk. In France, a law passed in April forbidding companies from labelling plant-based alternatives as ‘meat’ – with a 300,000-euro fine hanging over any business that disobeys.

Just is no stranger to the legal problems surrounding product descriptions. In 2014, the company was briefly sued by Unilever over the labelling of its Just Mayo – if it doesn’t contain eggs, it’s not mayonnaise, went the Unilever argument (the multinational dropped the lawsuit a few months later).

Due to European regulations, Just’s scrambled alternative is unlikely to be sold under the name Just Egg when Eurovo starts production.

When it comes to cultured meat, however, Tetrick is very clear where he stands on the issue: “We certainly produce meat today differently than we did 50 years ago, and we’ll produce it differently 50 years from now, but we believe as long as it literally is from an animal, it should be allowed to be called meat.”

Does it really matter what it's called, though? Absolutely, according to Tetrick, who returns to the Alabama principle for his explanation: if Tesla released a pickup truck that was better in every way than a traditional model, but were forced to call it an electric mobility transport unit, people wouldn’t buy it, because it would be divorced from what they understand.

“I think it’s similar for food, but even more so,” he says. “I do think it’s important to try to name the things we’re making with these new tools in a way that connects with how people have been eating for a long time.”

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