Go big, or go home. This cliche could serve well in the alternative meat scene, where scaling up production and consumption could make all the difference for our planet. If the goal is the large-scale change of eating habits, why not “go big” and take on… say … the food service industry?
This is the savvy approach that Seattle-based startup Rebellyous Foods is undertaking with its plant-based chicken nuggets. Corporate cafeterias, schools, hospitals — these are the places where mass quantities of food are served every day and thus provide an opportunity to make a big difference. While the climate emergency looms large, we have numerous solutions at our fingertips, namely alternatives to meat. “Plant-based meat is a powerful solution for this problem,” founder and CEO Christie Lagally tells CleanTechnica, “but only if it can be scaled. This is why, at Rebellyous Foods, we’re changing how plant-based meat is made so that it can finally become affordable and accessible.”
Curious to learn more about the initiatives at Rebellyous Foods, we put our questions to Lagally to learn more about the company’s plans to take on the food service industry with chicken nuggets. Read the interview below.
Why did you found Rebellyous Foods? What was the initial inspiration behind the project?
There were a number of people, events, and “lightbulb moments” that led me to found Rebellyous Foods, but the underlying motivation came decades before any of those things. As a Gen Xer, I’ve lived my entire life under the threat of climate change. From a young age, it was clear to me that environmental issues were of pressing concern on a global scale, and I wanted to find similarly global solutions. In terms of global impact, reducing or eliminating meat consumption is one of the most powerful actions humanity can take to protect the environment and combat climate change. And yet, in the more than 20 years that I’ve been involved in animal and environmental advocacy, meat and dairy consumption has only continued to rise. Plant-based meat is a powerful solution for this problem, but only if it can be scaled. This is why, at Rebellyous Foods, we’re changing how plant-based meat is made so that it can finally become affordable and accessible.
We decided to start with the humble chicken nugget for a number of reasons, and on account of one number in particular –– nine billion: the number of chickens that are slaughtered every year for meat. Not only is the scale of the chicken industry hurting animals and the environment, chicken production is rife with workers’ rights abuses, and creates impossible situations for farmers who have to conform to industry standards or go hungry.
Factory farming as we know it today began in the chicken industry, so there’s something poetic about beginning our work with plant-based chicken.
Your website suggests serving your products at schools, hospitals, corporate cafeterias, or restaurants. Is the foodservice industry your target market and if so why?
Right now, catering to the foodservice industry is our primary focus. These institutions feed massive numbers of people every day, and we see this market as a huge and largely ignored opportunity for the plant-based meat industry to step in and fill a need for foodservice professionals and their customers alike.
Our VP of Business Development, Kristie Middleton, spent years working with the Humane Society of the United States to (among other things) conduct plant-based culinary trainings for foodservice professionals in schools, hospitals, corporate cafeterias, and more. During that time, she realized that the passion these operators had for serving healthy, delicious, sustainable food was being compromised by a lack of products that matched their tight budgets and unique kitchen requirements. In kitchens that often lacked even basic tools like measuring cups and cutting boards, there was no time, space, or funds for plant-based options that require fussy preparation and cost two to five times as much as factory-farmed meat.
Can you tell us a bit about the specific process and technology you are using to create plant-based meat alternatives?
For more than 70 years, the meat industry has been making advances in mechanical engineering and automation that have made meat production as vast and efficient as it is today. As demand grows internationally, it’s unlikely that this pace will slow anytime soon. By contrast, the plant-based meat industry hasn’t made significant changes to its production technology and equipment in decades. The vast majority of plant-based meat products today are still made with food-grade extruders and off-the-shelf meat processing equipment, which have been in use in the industry since “plant-based meat” was still the humble “veggie burger.”
These machines are highly sophisticated, but neither was originally designed to process plant proteins. Food extruders, for instance, were developed to make foods like cereal and pasta. And in the years since, they haven’t been fully optimized to excel in this new task. Plant protein has unique processing requirements like achieving consistent moisture retention and species-specific texture (think beef versus chicken), just to scratch the surface. Despite these limitations, food extruders can carry a price tag of almost two million dollars for a single unit, severely restricting the production capabilities of startups in the sector.
We are engineering new machinery and processes that are custom-tailored to the requirements of plant-based meat production, allowing for lower-cost, high and continuous throughput, streamlined operations, top-notch quality control, and ultimately, a better kind of plant-based meat.
How do the greenhouse gas emissions from your products compare to the emissions from traditional meat?
There’s an oft-repeated myth in environmental circles that chicken is a climate-friendly food because of its favorable comparison to beef in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. But saying chicken is climate friendly because it is better than beef is like saying that an SUV is climate-friendly because it isn’t an 18-wheeler. Chicken production is responsible for eleven times more greenhouse gas emissions than beans per serving, and a bean – the soybean, in particular – is a core ingredient of Rebellyous nuggets.
How much do your products cost in comparison with traditional meat?
Plant-based meat costs consumers 2–5 times as much as conventionally produced meat. It’s this added expense that keeps people reliant on factory farmed meat for cheap protein! But we have to investigate why these products are more expensive to find a solution. Let’s take nuggets, for obvious reasons:
Today, the cost of production for the typical soy nugget is around 75% greater than the cost of production for a conventional chicken nugget. Manufacturing, labor, and electricity are the primary drivers of this, which is why those are the exact factors we’re targeting for cost reduction. A lack of specialized equipment and built-in efficiencies keep these costs high and stagnant. With our optimized production tech running at scale, we have determined that we can slash those costs by about half to finally produce plant-based meat slightly more cheaply than factory farmed meat. While we’re not there yet – we’re still in the early stages of developing our new processes – we can already sell Rebellyous Nuggets at the same cost as plant-based brands that have been around for decades.
How did you source your funding as a startup? Which VCs or companies have invested in Rebellyous Foods?
Rebellyous Foods is a Y Combinator funded start-up, and has been supported by some of the most impactful venture capital groups in the world, including Fifty Year VC, Liquid II Ventures, VegInvest, Blue Horizon, and Sinai Ventures.
What are some of the biggest obstacles facing alternative meat today? Where do you see Rebellyous Foods and the alternative meat industry in the next five years?
The plant-based meat industry has had a number of major wins recently with climbing consumer demand and numerous restaurant partnerships. But there are real challenges in growing it from this honeymoon phase into something that has the scale and market power to truly transform the global meat industry. The most fundamental obstacle to this growth lies in the way we make plant-based meat today. Today’s plant-based meat production is so inefficient, it’s akin to riding a horse for transportation. To improve transportation, we didn’t just need to build a stronger, mechanical horse. We had to reimagine the process and the machinery in its entirety. In the same way, we need to engineer a new, highly efficient approach to plant-based meat production if we want to reach a scale on par with the conventional meat industry. Rebellyous exists to tackle this fundamental problem by designing optimized production machinery and processes. In five years, we would like to be outfitting our flagship production facility, which will implement all of the prototypes we’re developing in our current headquarters to eventually produce 18 million pounds of plant-based meat per year. And if you look at conventional meat industry production stats, you’ll know that’s just the beginning! We’re not just here to produce another product. We’re here to go the distance and bring about the scale that everyone in this industry wants to achieve.
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