Unlike various fad diets that have reared their heads in the past decade, plant-based eating is now largely accepted as something that’s here to stay. To keep pace with this exponential growth, Spanish manufacturer AMC Group recently inaugurated its first purpose-built, 100% plant-based and allergen-free factory.
Unveiled at the end of June, the Skelmersdale facility in Lancashire hosts some of the latest food manufacturing technology to complement an eco-friendly design – one-fifth of the energy is provided by solar power, while any fruit peels are used for animal feed or fuel pellets.
The site is capable of producing 36m litres of freshly squeezed juice per year, enough to cover the entirety of the UK – every retailer, restaurant and coffee shop. While that’s arguably the most impressive aspect of the project, however, it’s certainly not its sole purpose.
“The new factory perfectly sums up our vision for the group: sustainability and great plant-based and allergen-free food,” Mike Bullock, fresh foods director at AMC Group, tells Food Spark.
Despite the huge growth of the plant-based market, there are still numerous areas which continue to discourage would-be vegans, such as dairy-free cheeses, according to Bullock, and he wants AMC to fill the gap.
“I think there are plenty of people doing great meat alternatives, such as Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger,” he says. “But what we’re really lacking – and where a lot of our focus is currently – is dairy-free. There aren’t many good creams out there – certainly not ones that actually whip. The cheeses out there are okay, but only okay… If you go to food fairs, there are some that are brilliant, but they’re just not that commercially available at the moment.”
Bullock also considers ready meals to be a key focus for plant-based companies in the near future.
“We’re in a world where convenience is king,” he says. “If you look at most meal deals and ready meals, there aren’t a great number of free-from options. You might have one or two for the main, but the sides and desserts are almost non-existent.
“Even the roast potato sides often aren’t vegan because they’re cooked in butter. There are areas like that where it’s just completely unnecessary for foods not to be vegan-friendly, and that’s where we need to change people’s mindsets a little bit.”
Sustaining business – and the planet
The AMC Group has a multitude of facilities throughout Europe working on various areas of high-end, plant-based and allergen-free eating – an ice-cream business in Italy and a dairy-free business in Portugal, to name two.
“[In Portugal] they’re also looking at walnut milk, which doesn’t exist in the market yet, but it tastes flippin’ awesome!” comments Bullock. “Our mission is that we stop calling it plant-based, and it becomes a really good food that just happens to be made from plants, and just happens not to have killed any animals.”
The group is also known for co-producing products for the likes of Bol, Soupologie and Rebel Kitchen, but those ties run deeper than simple production.
“We want partners who are going to be shouting as loudly as we are,” says Bullock. “People with loud voices who are absolutely passionate about things like sustainability. Large or small, we try to partner up with companies that care as we do.”
He adds that the AMC Group is persistently looking for the next formula to improve its waste management.
“We are always evaluating the way we grow our fruit and ways to make it more water or land efficient,” he explains. “We’ve developed all sorts of processes to extract natural parts, so instead of chucking half an orange away, we’ll use the entire thing. Our whole ethos is to address some of the sustainability, ethical and health challenges out there.”
No second-class citizens
Bullock feels a change in the wind in the plant-based options that are coming to market.
“[At restaurants] often you can get one choice, maybe two choices of main courses,” says Bullock. “Which is frustrating enough, but when you get the dessert, you're pretty stuck! If you're a person that's vegan or that's made a diet choice, you're going to be pretty annoyed at these places, aren’t you?
“You're not a second-class citizen! It's all about no compromise, and we’re making great strides in that direction. Our dairy-free yoghurt, for example, is now at the point where it’s better than normal yoghurt – as are our soups.”
He notes Marks & Spencer and Tesco seem to have a similar mindset when it comes to NPD.
“In the next year or so, we’ll see a lot more of the big chains making the next step in plant-based,” he says. “Pret, for example, launches more plant-based food every time it launches a new range – even KFC has a plant-based chicken burger now.”