COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) - A new production plant near Columbia is testing whether it will be able to market a product that looks and tastes like chicken but has no actual chicken in it.
It is part of an expansion by vegan meat company Savage River Inc. for its Beyond Meat brand, using technology licensed from the University of Missouri.
The plant is producing a chicken substitute made of soy protein, pea protein and carrot fiber. The dry ingredients are mixed with water and heated. The a process is designed to create a plant-based product that not only tastes like chicken but also shreds like meat and chews like chicken, The Kansas City Star reported (http://bit.ly/URseYz ).
The plant in Columbia is a combined effort from entrepreneur Ethan Brown and two University of Missouri food scientists who have worked for about two decades to get the "texturized vegetable protein" just right.
"Our very first attempts were total failures," said Harold Huff, senior research specialist in biological engineering. "For it to appeal to us, when all is said and done, it has to chew right."
Fu-Hung Hsieh, biological engineering and food science professor, said the scientists figured out how to form the fibers in the 1990s but couldn't make the product consistent. A research grant allowed them to use more ingredients in larger batches, which stabilized the process. Soy is the base because of its availability and affordability and because some people are sensitive to wheat gluten, he said.
Brown founded Beyond Meat and chose Columbia for the operation. It has 15 employees and one line with room for expansion.
He said he wanted to offer a meat alternative better than the current choices, to provide the "whole sensory experience" of eating meat. He's a vegan but said he understands the satisfaction of eating meat.
After surveying plant-based products from North America to Asia, Brown said he decided to work with Huff and Hsieh to bring the product to market.
"It was the fibrous structure of what they had developed," he said. "It clearly mimics the fibrous structure of animal muscle or meat in a way I haven't seen."
The goal is not to replace real chicken, Brown said, but to serve a growing market of people who want one or two meals a week with a plant-based protein as the main course. The company next plans to produce analogs to beef and pork and broaden its range of protein types used in the products.
And Brown hopes to make the produce competitive with regular chicken.
"It takes six weeks to raise a chicken," he says, "and about two minutes to run our process. We're very set on passing those savings along to consumers. How quickly we can do that depends on volume."
Bob Prusha, vice president of operations, said the company expects to have its chicken-less strips in stores the first quarter of next year. The company currently is selling its strips to Whole Foods, which is including the product in prepared dishes. Its stores in Overland Park offer chicken salad made with the strips.
Prusha, a meat eater, said he is like many people who are eating more poultry and fish. More plant-based alternatives are the next step, he said.
"It becomes an easy transition if you feel like you're not sacrificing," he said.