Kerry Taste & Nutrition The Business of Alt Protein: Unlocking food safety in plant-based meat April 23, 2021



Emma Cahill , Strategic Marketing, Food Protection & Preservation, Kerry Taste & Nutrition

Jennifer Wasieleski, RD&A Director, Food Protection & Preservation, Kerry Taste & Nutrition

Renetta Cooper, Technical Business Development Director, Food Protection & Preservation Kerry Taste & Nutrition

What are consumer-friendly ingredients? (Emma Cahill)

You may already be familiar with the term clean label, which is an industry favorite.

Sometimes those two things overlap. Consumer-friendly in some regions can mean all natural, no artificial preservatives, but it’s more than that. It can be about sustainability, economics and food safety. 

What are the drivers for plant-based meat consumption today and what does that mean when formulating? (Emma Cahill)

At its inception, the plant-based meat market was likely quite niche and coming from a place of dietary restriction, mostly driven by vegan and vegetarian diets. Then emerged the flexitarian, which is definitely a word I have learned in the last five years. The number one driver around the world for plant-based meat purchase is sustainability. In most regions of the world, the number one trend we see as part of our recent proprietary research is sustainability. But in North America, there is an exception. The number one driver is health and wellness. What does that mean when you’re formulating plant-based meat on you’re concerned around food safety? Starting with sustainability, which is such a hot topic in all of our daily lives, consumers were concerned about sustainability are going to be particularly sensitive to food waste concerns.

If a plant-based meat product expires or has a quality issue before they get to consume it, that’s going to be a huge negative in that consumer’s mind. Back to health and wellness. Those consumers are more likely to read ingredient declarations and nutrition statements. Things like no additives or preservatives claims and sodium content will really impact their purchase decisions. As mentioned, dietary restrictions are not the main driver anymore for a plant-based diet. 

Are mainstream consumers still willing to give plant-based meat special treatment? (Emma Cahill)

We are seeing that over half of consumers of plant-based meat have a no restriction diet from our own proprietary research called Meat, the Challenge. Additionally, Nielsen tells us that 99% of plant-based meat consumers are also buying animal protein for their households. Again, what does that mean when you’re formulating plant protein and worried about food safety? It means that those consumers expect to be able to treat a plant protein with the same familiarity and convenience as they do their animal protein that they’re preparing for their households. They are not the niche consumer who’s willing to give it special treatments and they can often be disappointed if it parishes quicker or is harder to prepare.

Differences in the need for special handling and preparation can lead to food safety issues when a consumer just assumes that they can treat it like animal-based meat. As covered earlier, health and wellness is a huge driver for why people are eating plant-based meat. Plant-based doesn’t get a free pass on ingredient labels and nutrition. With over 60% of consumers saying that they frequently read a nutritional panel and ingredient statements. In our recent food safety research, we also unearthed that as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, 60% of consumers are saying they’re way more concerned about food safety than they were pre pandemic.

Are consumers concerned with food safety in plant-based meat? (Emma Cahill)

With this in mind, I want to go back to your phones and ask you a question. Do you feel that food safety in plant-based meat is a consumer concern? Obviously food safety is top of mind from an industry point of view. We’re always here to protect consumer health and prevent brand recalls, but do we think it has hit the consumer’s radar in plant-based meat?

Kerry very recently launched some proprietary research conducted in North America in this instance with a panel of about 1,000 consumers, where we wanted to explore consumer understanding of food safety. We did this across all product categories for both in-home and out of home consumption and we were very surprised by the results. The number one and two for in-home consumption in terms of product categories where consumers have the highest level of concern was no surprise to me anyway, it was fresh meat and processed meat. But what came next was a little bit surprising. Our number three equaling processed meat for consumer concern was other plant-based dairy. This was everything except non-dairy milk, so plant-based cheese and plant-based yogurt. Right up there in fourth place was plant-based meat alternatives with 49% of consumers expressing a concern around the food safety of these products. So the answer is YES, consumers are concerned with food safety in plant-based meat. We wanted to know why plant-based meat is so high on a consumer’s radar as a food safety concern at pacing meat based products like frozen chicken. We believe this is a combination of unfamiliarity with plant-based meats.

They’re not as used to growing up with this. It’s probably new, and they’re not sure how to prepare it. They don’t have that reflex or that experience of the sniff test to know if it’s okay to eat. Combine this with a look at the number of recalls around the world that are hitting the media. These are just headlines from around the world across plant-based meat and plant-based dairy of recalls that have hit the media and would be within consumer awareness. Add into this some opinion pieces that are out there that have been written for the industry about food safety concerns in the plant-based meat space and we can understand why this messaging is hitting consumers and they’re feeling concerns.

Why does the industry need to care about food safety? (Emma Cahill)

That we consumers are concerned with food safety, we also asked them as part of the same survey upon who the responsibility lies to ensure food safety. Their answer was that it lies with the industry. The pain of a recall also hits the industry. With data, showing that the average cost of a recall is $10 million. That doesn’t capture the additional brand damage and potential loss of sales. From a food safety point of view, it helps for brand protection and also protecting consumer health. It’s really, really important that the industry takes food safety seriously and addresses any gaps that could be potentially there in terms of plant protein. With that, I’m going to hand over to my colleague Renetta Cooper. 

Is the future of plant-based meat fresh / frozen? (Renetta Cooper)

The question I wanted to ask you is what’s growing more quickly, is it fresh or frozen?

I can see from your answers here that you agreed with the information that we’ve seen that there’s likely to be a much greater increase in the refrigerated section. I think that we see that this is a really rapidly growing space.

A little bit more of a challenge is if you’re actually moving from frozen to fresh. You do want to understand your current formulation and understand that there’s actually anything already in that formula that would be helpful to deliver food protection. It is a bit more of a challenge because you have that base formula that you’re starting with. 

Where and when can food protection be built into plant-based? (Renetta Cooper)

It’s interesting and I think that there are different benefits with each of these options. One of them is to build the clean label preservation into your actual base material.

We think this is a really good starting point. If you build it into that base material and you account for any kind of flavor or texture differences that the antimicrobial may bring, it helps you to start with a cleaner place to build from. Build in early is an approach that we’ve taken. It’s actually just built into your white mass.

Another way of building your clean label antimicrobial would be to be integrated into your flavor system. Whether that’s a masking system or the seasoning blends that you’re using in your product. This is really helpful because it gives your operators one last step. So everything can go in at one time, and then you have confidence that good safety has actually been built in and you’re covered from that perspective. It’s just one system that covers both your flavor requirements, any masking requirements that you might have, as well as the clean label antimicrobial.

Next would be a multi ingredient system, and they are available either in liquid or dry solutions. In this particular case, you’re trying to target added benefits. You’re looking for multiple coverage of spoilage organisms or pathogens. It is typically added separately and it’s added to your base material, and then you would add your seasonings and flavors on top of that.

Then finally, if you have a formula that’s fairly complete, you can look at applying single ingredients. Those single ingredients are also available both in liquid and dry formats. It really depends on your processing and the ease of handling that you might be looking for, what option you would want to go with. In general, a single component system doesn’t give you as broad of coverage as you might see with a system. It’s really understanding the spectrum of inhibition that you need for your formula.


Is it just about adding a single ingredient for preservation in plant-based meat? (Renetta Cooper)

Adding a preservative ingredient alone doesn’t really guarantee an optimal shelf life and food safety performance. It’s really looking at all of those things, temperature, water activity, pH, how can you control those within your formulation to give that product the best chance. Lower pH, lower water activity tends to result in something with a longer shelf life. Then what are your options around clean label preservation? We really think that partnering with the ingredient supplier, getting their understanding of how you can adjust water activity, how you can adjust pH within your formulation, and then finally picking and selecting the best clean label antimicrobial for the product that you’re trying to develop.

Is plant-based meat most challenged with pathogens or spoilage? (Jennifer Wasieleski)

When it comes to determining the shelf life of food products, developers need to understand the spoilage related to microbial growth.

Microbial spoilage can be broken down into two distinct categories, (1) food pathogens, which are bacteria that will make you sick, and (2) food spoilage microorganisms, which will just make the food organoleptically unappetizing. Such as the mold growing on your bread or cheese. It’s important to note that just because you have interventions that can control one category, it does not mean that you are capable of controlling the other category.

Plant protein vs. animal protein (Jennifer Wasieleski))

A comparison of microbial risks between animal and plant protein products. Because both products have high moisture and close to neutral pH, they make a great growing environment for bacteria. So we shouldn’t be surprised that the risks are quite similar between them. There are more spoilage factors in plant-based meat than in animal protein.

Plant-based burger patty challenge studies (Jennifer Wasieleski))

We can see from the challenge studies highlighted that pathogen control such as listeria in plant-based meat is relatively easy with ingredients that are used in the animal-based meat space. If the right steps are in place, food safety issues should not be of increased concern versus other foods. In plant-based meat, it is often spoilage which is the limiting factor in shelf life.


An integrated approach to plant protein food protection (Jennifer Wasieleski))

Whether you have a product today that’s frozen and you’re looking to move into the refrigerated space, or you’re working on developing a new refrigerated product for the market, we would recommend taking an integrated approach. The first step is to identify your challenges and goals. This starts with deciding on what your application will be and considering how it would be processed. You’ll need to set a target for your shelf life goals, understand the regional regulations on where you’re planning to sell the product, and consider if there are certain ingredients that you do or do not want on your label. All of this information that will feed into your cost targets.

Once you have the initial goals and targets in place, you’ll move into the technical considerations. This is the best time to start engaging with your food protection ingredient supplier. Together, you can perform the biological risk assessment related to the formulation, processing and packaging. That information then will be critical for the supplier to understand what ingredients in their portfolio would be most appropriate for your application goals. Once that solution has been identified, then you’ll work together to determine which type of test should be performed in order to confirm that you’ve met your success criteria. In most cases, it will be a microbial challenge study. The question is, are you able to do that yourself or is there a third-party study that you’ll need to engage with, or does your ingredient supplier have the capabilities to help you with that? Ultimately, before you launch your product, you’ll want to validate your solution with a production trial. There’s a diverse range of spoilage organisms in the Enterobacteriaceae and lactic acid bacteria families which will be introduced into your product through your production facility.

A trial at the production scale is the way to truly test out performance of your food safety and food spoilage solution. After this work is completed, you’ll have full confidence in the success of your new product launch.

Emma Cahill:

Thanks Jennifer. As promised in the abstract, we wanted to deliver to you some actionable insights around food safety. To help protect consumer health, prevent product recalls and ensure brand protection. This falls under the headline of protecting food, and we believe that solving challenges is about more than ingredients. In addition to that, we wanted to cover how to get products from their freezer to the refrigerator, the scientific approach to adding hurdles covered by Jennifer. As you’ve seen today, the opportunity is much greater than this, by shelf life extension and preservation. This is a huge opportunity to improve the sustainability of plant-based protein by reducing food waste. As well as this, we can look at the sustainability of the processes. Looking at making them more efficient through cost reduction and another opportunity for shelf life extension. That switched to clean label, consumer-friendly ingredients that are so important to consumers around the world.

Emma Cahill:

Ensuring you’re able to use ingredients from nature that are backed by science. An extra layer given by expertise with partners who can deliver more from your product is tackling challenges that are more complex, like delivering taste, nutrition and appeal, protecting flavor over shelf life, reducing sodium, or ensuring the craveability of your plant-based burger. As we said, sodium reduction is a common challenge in the plant-based space. You might need help with flavor enhancement or access to no and low sodium preservation solutions. There’s lots of ambitious plant protein brands out there and tackling global and regional expansion can be challenging. Looking for compliance, you need regulatory expertise on a global supply chain you can trust. With that, I’ll hand over to Marika for the Q&A section. Thank you for your attention.

At what point there is a change in perception from a chilled product, which is fresh, to something which is artificially extended? Can too much chilled shelf life be perceived as a negative? (Emma Cahill)

I’ll start with saying that this is around consumer sentiments, which are subjective. Which is why Kerry are constantly launching updated consumer research to probe into what makes consumers tick. The best answer I have is based on the personas of consumers that are consuming plant-based meat today, they’re looking for convenience that fits into their lives. They want to be able to treat it like meats. I would say the starting point is being able to match the shelf life that you get from meats. We hear anecdotally from consumers as part of our panels, they took something out of the freezer and from a convenience and busy life point of view, they didn’t get to cook it right away. They left it in the refrigerator for two or three days, and so it deteriorates. They said, “My meat product would have been fine for two days in the fridge. Why is it not the same?” Our best benchmark here, because it is subjective in consumers’ minds, is at least matching the familiar experience in terms of shelf life with meat. We do a lot of research, especially in my division in understanding consumer understanding of preservatives.

Emma Cahill:

The short answer is, they don’t fully understand them. They know that preservatives are scary and they see things in the media with unfamiliar names, and some of them even come with potential health risks. But they don’t understand what ingredients are in there from a preservation point of view. That’s why consumer friendly labels and education can help. It’s that trust piece where the consumer picks up the packets, looks at the ingredients, feels that they’re familiar and trustworthy. And that the shelf life is long enough to fit into their lives, but not long enough to be completely suspicious. [inaudible 00:50:37].

 How can we effectively communication that a product has no secondary shelf life without discouraging a consumer from purchasing it? (Emma Cahill)

This is not unique to the plant-based space. You will see a lot of products come across all categories of food and beverage that might be on ambient storage until they’re opened. Then once they’re opened, there’s a message on the packet, refrigerate after opening, the will keep for seven days after shelf life. Usually in condiments, this can be very surprising to consumers. That’s something that can be ambience and closed and live in their cupboard for one year, and once it’s opened, it needs to be used within one week or use within 30 days. I would say that that’s the most effective way to communicate this to consumers without putting them off from buying it. It’s things like processes and packaging that might give you that shelf life that’s there until it’s opened. Then just effectively communicating what shelf life is there after it’s opened, so it’s not a surprise.

Why is sodium reduction a challenge in plant-based meat? (Emma Cahill)

It’s not only about adding salt for taste. A lot of the preservatives out there are sodium based, so they do contribute sodium to the final formulation. If you’re already using sodium or sodium based products to enhance the taste of plant-based, because if consumers are trying to replicate that animal meat experience, they’re used to quite salty processed meats in my experience. You’re trying to protect the taste, but match the nutritionals to consumer expectations. If your preservative solution is adding further sodium, it can put sodium above the threshold. We even see this in certain markets where there are regulations to limit the amount of sodium per 100 grams of product, for example. We are always looking to provide solutions that have no and low sodium contribution. So when you’re formulating you only have to worry about the taste contribution of sodium in a positive way versus extra sodium coming in from your preservative solution.

Can you provide examples of functional systems and when AM typically applied at food production plants? (Emma Cahill)

These can be combinations that have different modes of action on spoilage or pathogenic microbials. We could combine solutions that are made from different things like fermentation or from plants. It could be a combination of vinegar with carbonyls, like you saw on the data that Jennifer presented. Things that are peptide based or organic acid based.  The idea is that you’re having an action in two ways. Something that might have a really strong impact on pathogens combined with something else that has a really strong impact on mold and yeast and other spoilage microorganisms are coming together and completing each other with an additive, like one plus one equals three. Where just coming together in a positive way to help protect and extend shelf life.

The idea of using two solutions together is they usually can come in at lower dosage and still have a better impact on sensory nutritionals than a strong dose of one single ingredient.