Friday, July 27, 2012

New Harvest’s Jason Matheny Shares Perspectives on the Future of Meat Alternatives

This is a reprint of an interview I wrote for the Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet blog.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, between 1970 and 2010 the number of cows raised for human consumption rose 32 percent to reach 1.4 billion, pigs rose 76 percent to reach 965 million, and chickens rose 273 percent to reach 19.4 billion. But despite its popularity, current levels and methods of meat production and consumption can have an adverse effect on human health, the environment, and animal welfare.
Jason Matheny is working to produce economically viable meat substitutes. (Photo credit:
New Harvest is an organization that supports research regarding economically viable meat substitutes and provides a forum for sharing related innovations. In the interview below, New Harvest founder Jason Matheny talks about the work of the organization and his perspectives on the future of meat alternatives.
Why did you start New Harvest and what is its primary focus?
I founded New Harvest in 2003 because there wasn’t an organization devoted to advancing technologies for new meat substitutes. There are several companies making plant- or mycoprotein-based meat substitutes, but there was no organization working on more advanced technologies, such as cultured meat, and no organization looking broadly at how to replace animal proteins with advanced substitutes. We fund academic research, conferences, and economic and environmental assessments. We’ll probably continue focusing on these areas, since it addresses an important need.
What do you think are some of the most interesting alternative meat products? Do you think the future of alternative meat products lie in meat-like products such as soy burgers and no-chicken nuggets, or in vegetable-based products that do not look or sound like meat?
I think there are lots of good products out there, and they’re getting better. Two recent developments are the work of Pat Brown, a big name in biology who took a sabbatical from Stanford University to focus on developing new meat substitutes; and Ethan Brown (no relation), whose new meat substitute was recently covered by Mark Bittman of the New York Times. Given the strong appetite that most people have for things that taste and look like meat, I think the future of alternative meat products lies in meat-like products.
Why is it important to have meat substitutes like “tofu dogs”? Is the goal to help wean omnivores off of meat? Or perhaps to give them easy, more-sustainable ways of reducing their meat consumption?
Both. Meat was rare and nutritionally important in our evolutionary past, so it’s likely that we have a strong taste for it. And the global trend is a massive increase in meat consumption – mostly in developing countries.
What would you say to critics who point out that meat substitutes are usually more expensive than meat and are often highly processed?
The price of meat substitutes has been dominated by small-scale production, less efficient processes, and niche marketing. But it needn’t be that way. Pat Brown has been especially focused on reducing the price of meat substitutes well below that of meat. As for processing, most meat substitutes are replacements for heavily processed meat products. Replacing processed meat with processed plants that are much healthier, more humane, and environmentally friendly is a great improvement.
Excessive meat consumption in industrialized countries is often connected with negative health effects, yet more modest consumption in developing countries can provide a much-needed source of protein and can play a key role in alleviating hunger and malnutrition. Do meat substitutes have a different role to play in industrial nations versus developing countries?
Even developing countries have wealthier citizens who are eating unhealthy amounts of meat – overnutrition is a serious health problem among the wealthy in many low-income countries. My experience working on public health projects in India was part of the reason for starting New Harvest. I think it makes sense to try to increase consumption of meat substitutes among the middle and upper classes in both developed and developing countries.
Globally, who is doing the most exciting work in in vitro meat? Who is the closest to having a product that tastes like meat? Who is the closest to finding an affordable way of replicating the process?
 Cultured meat is still at a very early stage. The Netherlands has been leading the way in research. Mark Post expects to unveil a cultured meat hamburger this year. But there is progress in other countries, too.Gabor Forgacs in the United States even had a taste test during a recent TED event.
Has anyone done research about whether consumption of in vitro meat would have any adverse effects on human health?
There’s no commercial product yet to test – this is still at a basic research stage. Such testing would occur before U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval. Cultured meat is made of the same stuff that real meat is made of – but in principle one could make it much healthier by precisely controlling the amount and type of fat. One could have a hamburger with the fat content of an avocado.
How do you respond to those who fear in vitro meat for the same reasons they fear GM plants (that it is unnatural, for example, or may have unforeseen health detriments)?
 It’s not natural to put 10,000 chickens in a metal shed and pump them full of growth-promoting drugs. But that’s how most countries make chicken meat now. Even if they were free-range, there’s nothing natural about the broiler chicken – an animal artificially bred over centuries to have twice the natural size and growth rate of jungle fowl, with severe health problems as a result. Apart from those willing to revive a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, we’ve all opted to eat unnatural. I would prefer that we develop unnatural foods that are healthier, safer, cleaner, and more humane than the unnatural foods we find in animal agriculture.
Some advocates suggest that producing in vitro meat instead of raising livestock in a more traditional manner wouId reduce the use of natural resources such as water, land, and energy and generate less pollution.  Can you quantify that for us?
 Research at Oxford University looked at that question and estimated that mass production of cultured meat would reduce water and land use and CO2 emissions by 90% or more.
Love of meat eating and fear of “test tube” meat are both deeply engrained in the psyche of many across the globe. Moreover, in the developing world, meat eating has taken on the power of a status symbol, a source of pride. What do you think it will take to open up the public’s hearts and minds to in vitro meat?
 A product that’s safe, healthy, as cheap as regular meat, and aesthetically indistinguishable.
To learn more about New Harvest visit their website.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Pink Slime: Exception or Rule?

"Lean Finely Textured Beef" (LFTB)
or "Pink Slime"
Photo Credit: Beef Products Inc.
In 2001, Beef Products Inc. (BPI) sent a sample of a new beef product to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for approval. The product was derived from pathogen-risky beef trimmings and had been treated with a combination of ammonia hydroxide gas, flash freezing, and compression in order to make them safe for public consumption. Although the industry calls this product “lean finely textured beef” (LFTB), a USDA staffer in a 2002 internal memo labeled it “pink slime,” and the nickname has stuck. [1]
On March 5th, 2012, an online publication called The Daily reported that the USDA had purchased 7 million pounds of pink slime to be used in school lunches and Bettina Siegal started an online petition in protest.[2] The petition garnered over 200,000 signatures in nine days and social media buzzed with debate. Although the USDA upheld the product’s safety, restaurants and supermarkets alike gave in to public pressure and terminated use.
Pink slime originated in the 1990s when BPI began looking for a competitive advantage in the market. If they could turn the fatty beef trimmings left from slaughterhouse processing into a product fit for human consumption, they could secure just such an advantage. To remove the fat, the trimmings were heated and spun in a centrifuge.  But the more difficult challenge was the removal of bacteria. These trimmings were prone to carry E. Coli, Salmonella, and other pathogens. Their solution was ammonia hydroxide.[3]
BPI's ammonia treated beef.
Photo Credit: New York Times
The product has been used in foods such as hamburgers, hot dogs, lunch meats, pepperoni, and, meatballs.[4] Industry estimates suggest over 70 percent of American ground beef products use it. Although government scientists affirm that the product meets acceptable safety standards, consumers have not been persuaded. After the 2012 March petition, McDonald’s, Burger King, and Taco Bell all discontinued use.[5] Supermarkets Food Lion, Safeway, and Stop and Shop also stopped carrying it, as did Kroger, the largest chain with 2,435 stores.[6] Walmart, the largest retailer, discontinued use and alluded to the power of public concern in its public explanation:

As a result of customer and member feedback, Walmart and Sam’s Club will begin offering fresh ground beef that does not contain lean finely textured beef (LFTB)...While the USDA and experts agree that beef containing LFTB is safe and nutritious, we are committed to listening to our customers and providing the quality products they want at prices they can afford.[7]

            The USDA will keep using the product within its guidelines of 15 percent in any particular food item (hamburgers or tacos, for example), but bowing to public pressure, it will give schools the option on whether or not to use foods that incorporate the product.[8]
            The decision by so many retailers to pull pink slime—along with the USDA’s decision to make it optional—is a strong testament to the growing power of social media and of consumer activism.  However, this victory does not come without costs. The product was a cheap way of boosting product volume. Industry estimates suggest that hamburger prices will rise anywhere from 3 to 25 cents per pound and that the loss of this filler is equivalent to losing 1.5 million head of cattle. Additionally, as BPI closes plants that produce the product, they are laying off workers.[9]
            Although pink slime has attracted the most acute public scrutiny, it is merely the tip of a processed meat iceberg. Critics quickly point to other American staples such as hot dogs or chicken nuggets which also use chemicals—other than ammonia—to kill bacteria and preserve food.[10] The USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service updates a report of chemicals that are acceptable for use in the production of meat, chicken and egg products. The current iteration of this document is 53 pages long and includes dozens of substances such as chlorine dioxide and sodium hypochlorite.[11]
The widely-discussed pink slime controversy has been about one product, but the larger underlying problem has received far less attention. The very nature of industrial livestock production—feeding cows grain in confined, concentrated lots where they wade in their own manure and receive regular antibiotics to stave off infection—produces meat where E. coli, salmonella, and other pathogens are more prevalent and dangerous. [12]
Raising risky beef requires safety precautions. BPI chose ammonia hydroxide, but this was not the first, nor will it be the last use of chemicals to create food. As a society we must wrestle with how much and what kind of beef we consume. The choice has consequences. We must decide whether we want the pink slimes of the meat industry to become the exception...or the rule.

[1] Michael Moss, “Safety of Beef Processing Method Is Questioned,” New York Times, 30 December 2009, at
[3] [3] Michael Moss, “Safety of Beef Processing Method Is Questioned,” New York Times, 30 December 2009, at
[4] Dan Piller, “Loss of ‘pink slime’ filler likely to drive up hamburger prices,” Des Moines Register, 2 March 2012, at
[5] Allison Aubrey and Eliza BarClay, “USDA To Give Schools More Ground Beef Choices After Outcry Over 'Pink Slime',” National Public Radio, 15 March 2012, at
[6] Mae Anderson, “No. 1 grocer Kroger relents, ends 'pink slime' use,” 22 March 2012,, at
[7] Walmart, “Walmart Statement Regarding Lean Finely Textured Beef,” at
[8] Allison Aubrey and Eliza BarClay, “USDA To Give Schools More Ground Beef Choices After Outcry Over 'Pink Slime',” National Public Radio, 15 March 2012, at
[9] Dan Piller, “Loss of ‘pink slime’ filler likely to drive up hamburger prices,” Des Moines Register, 2 March 2012, at
[10] Ari LeVaux, “Why Hot Dogs, Chicken Nuggets and Some Other "Meats" Are Way Grosser Than 'Pink Slime',” AlterNet, 16 March 2012, at
[11]USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, “Safe and suitable ingredients used in the production of meat, poultry, and egg prdocuts - 7120.1 Revision 1,” 6 April 2012, at
[12] Mark Bittman, “The Pink Menace,” New York Times, 3 April 2012 at and Any Bellatti, “Beyond Pink Slime,” Huffington Post, 13 March 2012, at

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

PepsiCo and Chickpeas: a Private-Public Partnership in Ethiopia

Photo Credit: Judith Schuler, WFP
Around the globe, PepsiCo is known for signature food and beverage brands such as Frito-Lay, Gatorade, and Pepsi Cola. But in Ethiopia, PepsiCo plans to expand its brand, boost profits, and fight malnutrition with a lesser known product: the chickpea.

In September of last year, PepsiCo, the U.S. Agency for International Aid (USAID), and the UN World Food Program (WFP) announced a private-public partnership named Enterprise EthioPEA. This joint venture seeks to increase production of chickpeas in Ethiopia, support the development of the Ethiopian economy, and manufacture a ready-to-use supplementary food (RUSF) that will help combat malnutrition in Africa.

Currently Ethiopia is the top chickpea producer in Africa. PepsiCo and USAID plan to work with 10,000 small farmers in Ethiopia to double their chickpea production through better irrigation, soil enhancement, and improved farming techniques. Additionally PepsiCo scientists are working to increase yields by engineering a chickpea seed that is particularly suited for agriculture in Ethiopia.

Chickpeas are nitrogen-fixing, absorbing nitrogen from the air instead of the soil. Increasing chickpea production could benefit the land and better support the production of other crops in Ethiopia. Chickpeas are also 22 percent protein. When compared to the conversion rate of feed-to-protein in livestock, the direct consumption of protein and nutrients from chickpeas make them a more sustainable alternative to meat.

PepsiCo uses chickpeas to manufacture a variety of health foods and specifically partners with Israel’s Strauss Group to produce Sabra Hummus. Increasing chickpea production in Ethiopia is part of a business plan to increase revenue from nutritious products to $30 billion by 2020. At the same time, they plan to develop a value-added supply chain within Ethiopia to support the nation’s ability to further develop its manufacturing sector and export new commodities.

PepsiCo and WFP will work together to transform some of the chickpeas into a nutrient-rich RUSF, locally produced in Ethiopia. They plan to use WFP’s distribution network to deliver the RUSF to 40,000 Ethiopian children between the ages of 6 and 23 months. Later, they hope to expand delivery throughout the Horn of Africa.

This initiative will positively impact the livelihood of local farmers, address the critical issue of famine in the Horn of Africa and create sustainable business opportunities for PepsiCo," said Indra Nooyi, Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo. Nancy Roman, WFP's director for private partnerships, noted, “What's different about this is that the need on the humanitarian side is dovetailing so perfectly with the business plan on the corporate side."

USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah underscored the potential for such partnerships, "This unique partnership illustrates how we can develop market-based solutions and leverage resources to make a sustainable impact in reducing hunger and poverty.”

While the sustainability efforts of PepsiCo are applause-worthy, critics warn consumers not to ignore the greater impact of the company. In a world where 43 million children under five and 1.5 billion adults over 20 are overweight, PepsiCo still peddles foods and beverages that are salty, sugary, and processed. RUSFs are nutritious and Cheetos are not. PepsiCo makes both.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Food Sovereignty and Workers Rights

I'm very excited about an Op-Ed I helped research and write that is being published by The Punch, the most widely read newspaper in Nigeria.

An ILWU Local 4 longshore worker 
supports ILWU Local 21 
by demonstrating for good union jobs 
near EGT in Longview, WA. 
Photo credit: 
Don Ryan of the Associated Press.
Here's another piece I wrote this week, an intriguing combination of my old life as a union organizer and my new life working on sustainable food and agriculture issues:

ILWU Wins Fight for Union Dock Work in 

Longview, Washington

In 1996 La Via Compesina introduced the concept of “Food Sovereignty” at the World Food Summit. The idea behind food sovereignty is that sustainable, healthy and culturally suitable food is a human right, and that the food system needs to prioritize the rights and needs of those who produce, distribute, and consume food over market demands and corporate interests.
Food sovereignty unites farmers, consumers, migrants, landless peasants, and food system workers in common cause. It is not just about how our food is grown, but about how it is picked, processed, sold, transported, and eaten.
Last week the organization Family Farm Defenders declared its solidarity with a worker rights fight in Longview, Washington, reminding us of the link food sovereignty creates between food rights and worker’s rights: “One of the underlying principles of food sovereignty is that ALL workers deserve a living wage, dignified working conditions, and the right to organize. This guarantee extends to everyone working in the food/farm system—not just farmers and farmworkers, but also meatpackers, retail clerks, restaurant servers, truck drivers, and dockworkers.
The catalyst of this declaration was a dispute between union, grain-processing dock workers who are members of the International Longshore Workers Union (ILWU) Local 21 and EGT, operator of a new grain terminal and joint venture of Bunge North America (a large, international agribusiness with operations ranging from the farm to retail),ITOCHU (a Japanese trading firm), and STX Pan Ocean (a South Korean shipping company) .
After EGT built a US $200 million, state-of-the-art grain terminal in the Port of Longview—the first built in over two decades—it tried to employ workers that were not members of the ILWU. The ILWU’s contract with the Port of Longview states, however, that all dock work be done by members of their union.
All grain-related dock work on the West Coast is performed by ILWU members and their unity and strength has earned them high wages and good benefits. EGT had hoped to operate the first non-ILWU port in eight decades. Critics feared that this would have created the opportunity to provide inferior pay, benefits, and working conditions, opening the door for lower standards up and down the coast.
When EGT broke off negotiations with the ILWU and partnered with a contractor to hire workers who were not members of the ILWU, union members organized pickets, demonstrations, and work stoppages. Over 100 workers and members of their families were arrested.
Tensions intensified as the first scheduled boat delivery of grain approached. The ILWU planned massive peaceful demonstrations, other dissidents like the Occupy Movement threatened direct action to stop the delivery, and the Coast Guard, along with several other law enforcement agencies, was instructed to escort the cargo.
With the help of Washington Governor Chris Gregoire, a tentative agreement was reached and announced on Monday. ILWU President Robert McEllrath said, “This is a win for the ILWU, EGT, and the Longview community. I want to thank Governor Gregoire for her leadership in working with both parties to find common ground. The ILWU has eight decades of grain export experience in the Northwest, and we look forward to the opportunity to develop a positive working relationship with EGT.”
The agreement is a positive step for worker’s rights and for the food sovereignty movement that unites farmers, workers, and consumers worldwide.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Worldwatch Press Releases

Although I haven't done much personal blogging recently, I've have been writing for my new internship at the Worldwatch Institute. Here are links to two of my recent press releases. I hope to have a piece on current meat production and consumption patterns shortly.

Going Green in 2012: 12 Steps for the Developing World

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Devils and Angels

Last week I learned that Walmart is not only the devil sitting on one of America's shoulders, but also the angel sitting on the other. I attended a lecture at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) entitled “The Role of the Private Sector in Sustainable Agriculture.” The guest lecturer was a SAIS graduate: Beth Kreck, Senior Director of Sustainability for Walmart.

For eight years I was a union organizer and Walmart epitomized the evil employer. It paid it's employees poorly. It charged them ridiculous amounts for health insurance. The average sales associate at Walmart, for example, earns $8.81 an hour.  Even if she works full time - which is thirty-four hours per week at Walmart - she'll bring home $15,576 a year.  To put this in perspective, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services calculates the 2011 poverty threshold for a family of two to be $14,710 and $22,350 for a family of four.  

To be clear, the issue is not whether or not Walmart can afford to support it's workers. Walmart reported $3.8 billion net income just in the second quarter of this year and their CEO, Michael Duke, is looking at $18.7 million total compensation in 2011.  In 2010, Duke made more money in one hour than the average Walmart employee made all year.

Additionally, communities targeted for Walmart construction have often protested because the entry of a Walmart meant the exit of many small, local business owners who just couldn't compete.  And throughout this past year, Walmart has made headlines as it defended itself in the Supreme Court against allegations of gender discrimination.

These were the facts that I focused on when once upon a time I admonished my mother for shopping at Walmart. In our family Walmart was like Voldemort, an unseen antagonist whose evil presence was felt but whose name was never uttered. If Mom told me about a great deal and I asked where it came from, she'd respond cryptically: "Oh, you know where it came from..." 
I did not know that in 2005 Walmart made a conscious commitment to move in a sustainable direction. From it's website

At Walmart, we know that being an efficient and profitable business and being a good steward of the environment are goals that can work together. Our broad environmental goals at Walmart are simple and straightforward: to be supplied 100 percent by renewable energy; to create zero waste; to sell products that sustain people and the environment.
In her presentation at SAIS, Kreck gave examples of how such a business model proves good not only for the environment, the producers, and the customers, but also for the company.  She pointed to apple production in the American Pacific Northwest.  On average, 7% of apples are left on the ground to rot because they do not meet the aesthetic standards of most markets.  But with new technology, farmers are able to use cost-effective means to harvest all of the apples and separate the less attractive ones for use in products such as applesauce and juice where their appearance is unimportant.  Less waste means more profit for the farmer.  It also means a lower price for Walmart which then translates into a lower price for the customer.

Other examples include Walmarts effort to install solar panels on 75% of it's stores in California, a move that they estimate will provide 20-30% of their facilities' power needs in California plus annually prevent the production of 21,700 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions.  In the same state, Walmart reports that it has eliminated more than 80% of the waste that would otherwise go to landfills.  They have accomplished this through a combination of recycling, donating to food banks, and transforming expired food and organic waste into compost and animal feed.

Globally, Walmart has made various impressive commitments.  By 2012, both Walmart and Sam's Club must source all of it's fresh and frozen fish and seafood from third-party verified sustainable sources.  By 2015, no product will be sold that includes unsustainable palm oil as an ingredient.  In the next 5 years, it will invest $1 billion in sustainable small and medium size farms, in fresh food chains that pair local stores with local products.

Do these new angelic halos cancel my historic criticisms of Walmart's devilish side? No. Do they excite me? Yes! And more than a fleeting excitement, they buoy a deeper hope that the private sector can contribute in meaningful ways to fashioning a more sustainable world.  I'm curious to hear how other retailers respond to these initiatives and to see what kind of impact these shifts have on the consciousness of the average Walmart shopper.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Fishmongering Apprentice

I'm working as the Seafood Specialist for a local supermarket.  When people ask me what I do, I like to tell them I'm a fishmonger.  This response usually triggers a quizzical expression and an interesting conversation about my current life cutting, preparing, and selling fish.

This job has sparked many thoughts about grocery store practices and contemporary consumer culture.

The average shopper I meet, for example, wants fresh, diverse, cheap seafood options.  When is fish "cheap"?  Fish can be cheap if it is local, abundant, and doesn't involve a bunch of middlemen.  A buddy of mine came back from Maine, for example, and reported lobsters at $4.50/lb.  But most grocery-store goers are not looking for just what is local and abundant.  So what about the rest of our options?

A fish farm in Shanghai (credit: Ivan Walsh, courtesy Flickr).
Wild fish is usually cheap when it was caught using environmentally destructive methods such as bottom trawling or massive driftnets.  Farm-raised fish is cheaper when short-cuts are taken such as feeding the fish suspicious material and then pumping them full of antibiotics to make sure they don't get too sick.  It's also cheaper when it comes from places where land, labor, and capital are cheaper.  According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) we import 80% of our seafood.  Unfortunately, the GAO also reports that only 2% of that seafood is inspected.

But even "cheap" isn't necessarily cheap.  How much fossil fuel did it take to catch it, chill, it, and ship it here?  How much of the seascape was destroyed because of the harvesting method?  How much of the fish was harvested?  Too much?  There's a long list of external costs that unfortunately don't factor into the sticker price you see at the store.

I don't blame the customers.  If I think back on my own life and ask when anyone ever taught me to think about where my fish comes from, I'm dismayed by the answer.  It wasn't really until I lived in San Francisco - a bit of an sustainability anomaly, unfortunately, as American cities go - that I heard such questions asked.  And even then I was just starting off life as a working young adult.  If dollars were votes, I cast mine for the cheapest food alternatives and saved the rest for rent, student loans, and going out.

If the choice was tough for me, how much tougher is it for the penny-counting shoppers who have to choose between rent, medicine, and bread?  And then there are the many who don't even know there's a choice that needs to be made.

A discussion of solutions is as important as this one on challenges, deserving of it's own post, I think.  But for now I will say this:  The number of people in this world who can vote with their money and purchasing power is limited.  There are over seven billion men, women, and children in the world and at least a billion of them live on less than a dollar a day.  I believe, therefore, that educating our children is the best hope we have.  We need them to grow into consumers who make informed decisions, activists who demand a better future, business people who factor sustainability into their balance sheets, and politicians with open ears, wise minds, and determined hearts!

If you're curious to know more about where your fish comes from and which fish are best to buy, a good place to start is the Baltimore Aquarium's Seafood Watch.  Enjoy!