As far as meat alternatives are concerned, there are few people who have been in the business as long as Tim Finnigan.
He's been working at U.K.-based Quorn and its preceding corporate owners since 1995, and currently works as the chief scientific adviser. Almost 25 years ago, what is now a global meat alternative giant that claims to have served nearly 5 billion meals to consumers in 17 countries, was a project at British food company Rank Hovas McDougal. It dealt with turning mycoprotein, a fermented fungus culture, into food. Finnigan, a food scientist, expected work on the project to last maybe a year or two.
"I just found it a fascination, this whole idea ... was actually rooted back in the '60s and one man's vision, which is ... very inspiring," he said. "To kind of cut a long story short, that's where I've been ever since."
Quorn first entered the U.K. marketplace in 1985, and started being distributed there in 1993. The company's products, which include meat-free burgers, fishless sticks, sausages, deli slices, roasts and cheese cutlets, made it to North American shelves in 2002. Quorn's sales in the U.S. grew 24% in the last year, according to Ben Sussna, the brand's U.S. director of marketing and innovation practice.
Through almost a quarter century at the company — and in the meat alternative space — Finnigan said he has seen it all. There have been times when consumers weren't necessarily interested in the segment. And now, meat alternatives are the hottest area in food. As the category becomes crowded with upstarts and new products, Quorn, currently owned by Philippines-based noodle powerhouse Monde Nissin, isn't standing still. Finnigan said the company is investing in improving its capacity, technology and knowledge.
Three pillars: Taste, sustainability and health
The idea that became the company started in the 1960s when futurists projected the human race would run out of protein by the 1990s. J. Arthur Rank, a British industrialist, instructed scientists to work toward finding a non-animal solution to this potential problem. The fungus Fusarium venenatum was discovered in soil in 1967, and scientists figured out a process to grow, ferment and assemble it into mycoprotein, which is then dried and processed to take on the characteristics of meat.
Mycoprotein is easily adaptable to different textures and tastes, which explains why Quorn has such a wide range of products. Finnigan said part of the reason Quorn has been able to succeed is the attention the company has paid to the variety and quality of its products.
"You quickly become irrelevant if your food doesn't excite and delight the consumer or intrigue chefs. I mean, those are the two must-have things for anybody who wants to win in this space," Finnigan said. "The quality of the food has to be number one."
Quorn's long history, he said, shows the product has endurance on the market. And he hopes the food can speak for itself.
Finnigan recalled an early meeting with a U.S. company he was hoping to do a commercial partnership with about 20 years ago. The people he was presenting to didn't really seem to understand what he was talking about.
"So I stopped the presentation, said, 'Look, let's just try some of the food.' And of course, then, the lights went on and these guys said, 'Yeah, these guys are from the U.K. They've got some kicka-- products.' And the rest was really easy because they thought the food was so amazing.
Chief science officer, Quorn
"So I stopped the presentation, said, 'Look, let's just try some of the food,' " he said. "And of course, then, the lights went on and these guys said, 'Yeah, these guys are from the U.K. They've got some kicka-- products.' And the rest was really easy because they thought the food was so amazing."
While taste is paramount to keeping Quorn on the market, so are the product's sustainability and mycoprotein's health benefits. Finnigan said Quorn promotes its sustainability and health bona fides on a regular basis. After all, the company was founded with the goal of becoming a sustainable source of food for an uncertain future. Quorn puts out annual sustainability reports to tout its low carbon footprint and water usage. According to the company, Quorn's carbon footprint is 10 times lower than beef and four times lower than chicken. It uses 20 times less water than beef and 6 times less water than chicken.
As for its health benefits, Quorn routinely funds and participates in industry studies. The ingredient itself, the company says, has all nine amino acids, no cholesterol, high fiber and is low fat.
"We can't just separate the impact of the choices we make in our diets from the impact on the health of our bodies and the health of the planet," Finnigan said. "Those two things have to be talked about together ... and I think that that's quite an important thing, as an industry, to start discussing."
Finnigan said younger generations are more ready to discuss this — and take these aspects to heart. And as long as the company can show consumers that mycoprotein is good for them and the planet, consumers will be interested. He said many companies aspire to put back more than they take out when it comes to natural resources, and Quorn is trying to show its efforts to get there.
How the (meat-free) sausage is made
While several newer companies are using fermentation to create protein products — including Perfect Day, which makes dairy protein that way, and Future Meat Technologies, a manufacturer of fermented meat — Quorn has been at it for decades. And while the process is rather complicated, the company has been proactive in educating consumers on how the products are made.
Finnigan has starred in videos taking consumers through the process while looking right at the fermenters where the product is born. And even though the process is a bit science heavy, it also adds to transparency, something that consumers are clamoring for.
"We have to have the good quality science that actually removes consumer uncertainty," he said.
"We can't just separate the impact of the choices we make in our diets from the impact on the health of our bodies and the health of the planet. Those two things have to be talked about together ... and I think that that's quite an important thing, as an industry, to start discussing."
Chief science officer, Quorn
Although mycoprotein is created through a lengthy process, and is heavily processed in order to become a meat substitute, Quorn's products have a cleaner label than many competitors in the meat alternative space. This is one of its biggest differentiators, Finnigan said, and one that it may not play up enough.
"We're growing our tiny little member of the fungi family, and then we're simply cooking it and freezing it to create the texture," he said. "Whereas if you want to do something like [other popular meat-free alternatives] ... you can end up with a back-of-pack label that does look a bit like a chemistry set."
Quorn also has made efforts to be transparent with its labeling. In recent years, the brand has settled lawsuits from U.S. consumers who said they were misled by package statements describing mycoprotein's origin. One lawsuit, settled last year, is a wrongful death case involving a child with a mold allergy who died of anaphylactic shock after eating a Quorn product. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has advocated to take mycoproten off of the FDA's GRAS list, claims there have been thousands of adverse reactions to the ingredient.
A sustainable future
While the meat alternative movement is hot, Quorn is focusing on what's next. Finnigan said the company has a three-year innovation pipeline, and is always looking for new applications for mycoprotein.
Right now, there is some work being done to try to make a drinkable version, playing into the high-protein beverage trend. The company also has been talking to U.K. restaurants about some meat-free product launches.
Finnigan said he is interested in some of the work underway in the sector, including startups such as Sustainable Bioproducts that are producing similar fermented fungal protein items. He said while each company wants profits, the meat alternative segment is more about working together toward a common goal and less about cutthroat competition. The opportunities, he said, are enormous.
"We have to find a way of assuring a sustainable food future through the creation of healthy new proteins with the low environmental impacts. Because if you look at just business as usual with small adjustments, then it doesn't look very pretty," Finnigan said. "So it is important, I think, that the new entrants come. And they bring their energy, and if it's a great food and the consumers are delighted by that, then, you know, that's got in the long term to be a good thing. It might be difficult for some organizations, you know, that are toughing it out in the marketplace, but it's so important that we win, I think, as a sector."