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There is a consensus that some things can never be replaced like the feel of a book in your hand, or the flavor and texture of chicken nuggets. Rebellyous Foods is here to challenge the latter.
The meat industry market value is expected to rise to 1.5 trillion dollars by 2022, raising the issue of sustainability.
Many people are unaware, but this rising demand also has adverse environmental implications. It isn’t hard to imagine that increased meat demand should be accountable for fossil fuel usage, animal methane, water, and land consumption.
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But did you know that meat consumption is one of the leading causes of the 6th mass extinction that is currently happening?
There are many layers to the problem of replacing the traditional meat industry.
You have to get the taste right. You have to get the price right. You have to change eating patterns actively.
All the while keeping the environmental impact in check.
To do so, we need expertise in everything from machine engineering, chemistry to culinary arts. And that’s where Rebellyous Foods comes in.
Rebellyous is the brainchild of Christie Lagally.
An engineer by training, she has leveraged her diverse perspective to tackle the problems of the meat industry. She is one of the key figures in the food movement gripping the nation.
Her ambition is to have all meat-eaters, and not just vegetarians to switch over to this meat alternative. Let us dive into this discussion about her journey towards a meat-free world.
Q: Rebellyous is an interesting name. What’s the inspiration/story behind it?
We’re rebelling against the meat-industry standard by making a traditional product in a wholly non-traditional way. We’re doing this in order to address the negative impact of poultry production on the environment, industry workers, consumers, and of course, the birds themselves.
At the same time, as a food company, our priority is to give customers delicious, satisfying comfort food. The blend of those two elements – our critically serious mission and the simple desire to give people good food (the “belly” in the equation) – is how our name was born.
Q: After graduating as a mechanical engineer, what made you enter the food-manufacturing industry?
I spent several years working as a project manager at Boeing and prior to that in other disciplines in the aerospace industry, and during that time, I maintained a keen interest in climate action and animal welfare. As such, I was inevitably interested in food system reform, and particularly with regards to the problems posed by meat production and overconsumption.
I saw that new plant-based products were being introduced to replace carbon-intensive, heavily polluting animal products, and yet, none of them were being produced at a scale that would come close to rivaling the scale of the meat industry. At the time, I was working at the largest manufacturing facility in the world, and it made me wonder how much more of an impact plant-based meat could have if it’s manufacturing technology were optimized.
With Rebellyous Foods, I’m working to answer that question.
Q: What makes you think that mechanical engineering is as -if not more- important than genetic engineering when it comes to deciding the future of the food industry?
Put in the simplest terms, the scale of the meat industry is the result of the development of manufacturing technology. The “factory farm” model came into existence in the 1960s, and since then, the industry has been on a constant track toward greater efficiency, volume, and production optimization.
Today, we have almost completely automated, mechanized, and robotized slaughter and carcass deconstruction of animal processing. On the other side of the spectrum, there’s plant-based meat.
Plant-based alternatives were first introduced to the U.S. commercial market right at the turn of the 20th century, and since then, there have only been isolated and inconsistent attempts to address inefficiencies and scale to meaningful volumes.
Plant-based meat will only truly become widely available when it can be produced and sold at a low cost and high volume. And that will only happen when the industry gets smart about the scale and updates its production technology.
Q: What was the trigger/moment you decided to take the entrepreneurial path? (Was it a difficult change?)
There was no one moment that made me decide to take the entrepreneurial path. But the problem was so compelling to me that I couldn’t stop researching it, and when it became clear that no one else was going to address the plant-based meat industry’s manufacturing problem, I decided the value was too great not to pursue it.
Q: What better defines you, an entrepreneur or an engineer, and how do you divide your time between the two?
As the CEO of Rebellyous, I spend 90% of my time working to build the company. That being said, I can’t “build the company” without quite literally building the company’s equipment solutions and engineering strategy.
Our engineering efforts and growth trajectory are inexplicably linked, so I have to show up with the mindset of both the entrepreneur and the engineer on any given day.
Q: So, you also have a lot of compelling literature online. How would you define your target market? Is it vegans, vegetarians, or does it include meat-eaters as well?
Meat eaters are our target market. For our products to actually address the problems we are working to address (problems like greenhouse gas emissions, chronic disease, and human rights abuses in the poultry industry), they need to be eaten instead of conventionally raised chickens, not in addition to these products. Our goal is to make nuggets for people who love chicken nuggets but don’t necessarily love all of the negative externalities associated with poultry production.
Q: Plant-based protein is healthier and more nutritious than animal protein. Apart from the availability, what are the challenges in their adoption? How do you plan on addressing them?
Price and availability are tremendous barriers to the adoption of plant-based meat in the average person’s diet. Even with big recent successes like plant-based meat making its debut in chains like Dunkin, Burger King, and KFC, these options are still two-to-five times more expensive than the regular sausages, burgers, and nuggets.
On top of the issue of cost, we simply don’t produce enough plant-based meat for people to eat it on a regular basis. In the United States, we produce more than 105 billion pounds of animal meat each year. Best estimates of U.S. plant-based meat production hovers just around 200 million lbs per year.
That’s a fifth of one percent (0.2%) of the total U.S. meat production by volume.
Put in more relatable terms, that means there is only enough plant-based meat available for each resident of the U.S. to include it in one meal per year. And that’s it.
We can’t talk about widespread adoption until the product is actually available to adopt!
Q: How much of your product’s taste is attributed to chemistry and how much to culinary arts?
Food chemistry and culinary arts are practically interchangeable in our R&D efforts. The taste will always be king; chemistry comes in to ensure that we can consistently deliver the same great taste and texture to our customers.
Q: Speaking of chemistry, what do you think of the new protein sources that are emerging in labs around the world?
Cultivated meat (aka lab-grown meat) is a fantastic innovation for consumers who will always want animal-based meat on their plates and may not adopt plant-based proteins because of ideology. Cultivated meat is in its infancy, but we are excited that the industry will soon have products on the market.
Also, many conventionally produced meat products are combined with plant-based proteins, so I anticipate that cultivated meat products will be the same. Someday, we may be producing blended cultivated and plant-based protein products for other companies in our facilities.
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Q: The nuggets have received many favorable reviews. What is next for Rebellyous?
We have a lot in the works right now! In October, we moved into our new headquarters, which was previously being used as a meat processing facility, and we are continuing to build our equipment and hone our systems in this new location.
At the same time, we’re working with various national brands and food service providers to co-create nuggets that are customized for their customer base. One of the things we’re most excited about in the near term is introducing a nugget that fits the requirements of the USDA’s National School Lunch Program so that we can begin offering this option – which has more fiber, less sodium, and less saturated fat than the average chicken nugget – to students in K-12 schools.
We couldn’t be more excited to give school foodservice directors an affordable, wholesome option to serve to picky eaters.
(Disclaimer: The opinions stated in the interview strictly belong to the interviewee and Interesting Engineering does not necessarily support or endorse them.)