Quorn Foods is one of Britain’s biggest names in meat-free chilled and frozen food. Having been around for 30 years, it’s not going to let the likes of Impossible Foods and its ilk muscle it out of the increasingly lucrative plant-based market.
The company makes its meat substitute from a mycoprotein fermented in vats from a fungus found in soil, producing 50,000 tonnes of the stuff a year. It’s ambitious too, with the goal of becoming the first billion-dollar brand in the meat-free category by 2027.
In fact, it’s investing £7m into research and development, which will include a pilot factory to optimise the fermentation process and double its manufacturing capability, while a new facility at its North Yorkshire headquarters will be used for both new product development and to improve the current offering.
Food Spark spoke to Kevin Brennan, chief executive of Quorn Foods, about the key R&D areas, new products expected to hit the UK soon and where he sees the future for the alternative meat market.
Burgers, seafood and texture trials
A bleeding burger is high on the priority list for Brennan and early development has already begun, with plans to launch one into the UK market by next year. He says better-quality meat-free burgers would undoubtedly fill a gap in the market.
Quorn will also be turning to seafood. Its fishless finger launch 18 months ago was hugely successful, and has the company thinking about other fish products it could replicate.
The vegan trend is also driving Quorn as it looks to remove egg used as a binder or for texture from more of its products.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, however, as Brennan believes the development possibilities for the category are endless.
“Our view is anywhere where meat or dairy protein is used, there is potential for us to find a solution to that. So it could be in protein bars where whey protein is used, dairy-type products or other uses of meat,” he says.
There is also going to be a big push to develop a better texture across a bigger range of items.
“We already cover an extensive array of meat-style products, but our ability to get close to the meat-like texture kind of varies. With chicken, we are almost perfectly matching it; in beef, we are not doing it and in deli it’s somewhere in between,” he says. “But as the category gets bigger and you get more and more flexitarians than, say, vegetarians, then that taste barrier becomes higher, and there is a need for the product to become closer to meat for flexitarians to use it more regularly.”
Interestingly, Brennan reveals that Quorn isn’t just going it alone, but is looking to partner with other companies to take the brand into other categories “that might be difficult for us to enter ourselves.”
So with a focus on better textures, new categories and partnerships, will Quorn be looking for other alternatives beyond their mycoprotein? Brennan says there are distinct advantages to this ingredient, including the fact its non-soya, lessening any allergy concerns or taste profiles.
“I think historically we have very much focused on making the products exclusively out of mycoprotein, but in recent times we have started looking at blending it with pea protein, as an example, and we see some positive results, so I think we will look to do more in that area,” he says.
The Netflix generation and snacking
But Brennan doesn’t attribute the boom in plant-based eating to more people going vegan. He sees the key groups driving it as flexitarians, consumers looking for healthy, clean-label alternatives and vegetarians aspiring to veganism but not committing all the way.
One of the biggest influences, though, is generational change, with Netflix documentaries and media coverage highlighting a combination of meat-associated health issues, planetary problems and some of the poor practices in terms of farming, he says.
“I think that more broadly we will see a younger generation growing up that has a different relationship with meat – one that isn’t 60% of meals with meat, like the diets of middle-aged people in the Western world. I think this is a trend that is going to continue for a couple of decades.”
Quorn has seen particular growth in snacking and deli products – things like the cocktail sausage and picnic egg in the UK, while in the US the best-selling product is chicken nuggets and chicken bite schnitzels.
“We think that snacking is an area where the category is not providing many options and that on-the-go eating is a big trend,” says Brennan.
“There is often shelf-life challenges around snacking products. If they have only got 10 to 12 days of shelf life, then there is a limit on how much distribution you can get on them. We think if we can make really widely available snacking products, that there is a big untapped demand there.”
Across frozen and chilled, Quorn has 80 to 90 products in the UK market, but Brennan says the company is a long way off from running out of ideas that will drive more people into the meat-free category.
“A simple way to look at is to go and look at a meat and fish aisle, and in many retail outlets there is one bay of our category and there are eight bays of meat,” he explains. “Knowing that there is now going to be a relentless trend in [the meat-free] direction, then there should be the space to keep expanding it. We have got a pipeline of ideas and we could easily double that space in the UK in that category.”
Replacing meat in quick-service restaurants and ready meals
Delving deeper into flexitarianism, Quorn is looking at targeting occasions where it’s not easy to replace meat – whether it’s a certain style of meat or the type of occasion when it’s eaten.
But it’s also looking at where people eat when dining out, so the likes of quick-service restaurants, coffee shops, chains and on-the-go eating where it’s harder to find innovative meat free options – think of convenience stores and petrol stations where often the veggie choice is a cheese sandwich.
Quorn also has a big ready-meals launch planned for quarter four, which has been influenced by world flavours.
“We have got about 10 different SKUs in that, and there are laksa-type curries and curries from various parts of Asia, beyond just the classic Thai green curry. We are increasingly looking at those trends when we are looking at the more value-added products that we do, such as a ready meal,” he says.
Brennan predicts that meat alternatives will enjoy the same penetration in the future as dairy-free products like soy and almond milk, as more people seek to reduce their meat consumption.
“If our audience was vegans, it would be hard to take it to a fivefold increase, but when the audience is consuming meat and there is a trend to want to reduce that, then the prize is pretty amazing.”