What’s the beef? Plant-based wagyu divides opinion among Japan’s food industry

By Pearly Neo contact

- Last updated on GMT

Canadian food manufacturer Top Tier Foods’ recent announcement that it had successfully created a plant-based wagyu has divided opinion among the food industry in Japan, ranging from interest to outrage. ©Top Tier Foods
Canadian food manufacturer Top Tier Foods’ recent announcement that it had successfully created a plant-based wagyu has divided opinion among the food industry in Japan, ranging from interest to outrage. ©Top Tier Foods

Related tags: plant-based, wagyu, Japan

Canadian food manufacturer Top Tier Foods’ recent announcement that it had successfully created a plant-based wagyu has divided opinion among the food industry in Japan, ranging from interest to outrage.

According to Top Tier Foods President Blair Bullus, the plant-based wagyu is estimated to make its Japan launch by the end of the year, and the firm will be banking on the use of localised ingredients and production to market this to the local crowd.

“The plant-based wagyu is made from soy, an ingredient that is used a lot in Japan, and we’ve also partnered with local Japanese producers to manufacture at scale locally,”​ Bullus told FoodNavgator-Asia​.

“So the idea is that keeping everything in Japan will appeal to the local crowd, as the flavour will be more authentic due to the use of Japanese ingredients such as soy sauce, sesame, ginger, garlic and of course, the soy base and all processed using traditional Japanese cooking techniques. It’s all very clean label too.”

The plant-based wagyu will first be launched as teriyaki strips in a sukiyaki (slow-cooked in soup) style due to the prevalence and recognisability of this style in Japanese cuisine.

“What we’re making is not a ground beef, but a whole strip, so the texture will be different. We’ve also managed to achieve the moisture control necessary to make it similar to conventional wagyu, as well as get the marbled fat that wagyu is known for, using soy,”​ said Bullus.

“Although we can’t reveal too many details, the idea is that the plant-based wagyu will also be a tender, melt-in-the-mouth experience that still has a good bite, just like regular wagyu.”

The local food industry in Japan has thus far shown mixed reactions to Bullus’ invention: Local food distributor Yatsumoto Tsusho which deals with well-known brands such as Life chilli sauce and Stella Organic Swiss chocolate, has expressed confidence that it has a market in the country, and is in talks with Top Tier Foods to distribute the product.

“In Japan, plant-based products are becoming more popular with even a major coffee chain introducing a plant-based meat sandwich [so] I am confident in the product's potential,”​ Yaesumoto Tsusho Owner Yasuhiro Fukuchi told FoodNavigator-Asia​.

“We aim to target foodservice establishments planning to launch vegan and vegetarian menus first , [but because the plant-based wagyu] is so new in Japan, we have work to do by approaching more food service clients to understand the real opportunity.”

He added that this confidence was partially due to praise and endorsement by well-known chef Hidekazu Tojo, inventor of the California roll and recognised by the Japanese government as a goodwill ambassador of Japanese cuisine, who described the plant-based wagyu as an ‘amazing product’​ similar to real wagyu.

This was seconded by Wismettac Asian Foods, owner of the Shirakiku Japanese food brand, which believes that the potential of plant-based wagyu goes beyond just traditional foodservice establishments.

“[We would also target] sushi kiosks in grocery stores, cafeterias at colleges and universities, as well as supermarkets and [other stores] when retail packs are available,”​ Wismettac Senior Director Global Procurement Yasuhiku Hamada told us.

“Wagyu is a very versatile product and [can be presented in many ways] including as a sushi, stir fried, in a rice bowl, or even as a Vietnamese sandwich (Banh Mi).”

Incensed wagyu sector

However, there are also those with the food industry, especially from the conventional wagyu sector, that are up in arms about the new product and especially the use of the term ‘wagyu’.

“I do not think it is fair to use the term ‘wagyu’ if this is a plant-based product – wagyu means Japanese beef by definition, and if the product is plant-based, it can’t be wagyu,”​ Ibaraki Hitachiwagyu Beef Promotion Association Export and Sales Promotion Staff Yoshio Shirota told FoodNaviagtor-Asia.

“They can use ‘plant-based beef’ if they wish, but calling it wagyu will not be fair to us in the industry or consumers, as they might get the idea that it’s actually meat. There are over 300 brands of wagyu in the country and all of us are very proud of our product which we work hard to take care of and promote, so this is not right.”

Shirota also expressed doubt about the texture comparison, adding: “There is the loin and shoulder and rump and shortplate [which are sought-after parts] in regular wagyu, and I do not know how they intend to duplicate any of these using plant-based ingredients especially when it comes to texture and smell.”

In addition, he lamented the twist that plant-based innovation has taken - in this case, looking to duplicate a high-quality product instead of looking for solutions to solve food challenges.

“I would have no complaints if plant-based innovation like this is meant to create cheaper products to solve hunger issues in other countries that need it – but this is different,”​ said Shirota.

“This is [cutting in] on a market that is very expensive to maintain [and prides itself on high quality], and it is not fair to such a traditional sector, it is the wrong market.”

Challenges ahead

The plant-based wagyu proponents do not exactly anticipate a smooth road ahead either, and are banking on the localisation marketing strategy to gain mass appeal.

“Japanese people tend to be conservative with food choices and can often view hyper processed vegan products as if they came from another planet,”​ said Fukuchi.

“With [the plant-based wagyu] being made in Japan with traditional ingredients like soy, we believe the right [marketing] approach will be to highlight the similarities to familier products like tofu and educate the consumer on the benefits of a plant-based diet.”

Hamada concurred and added that ‘new age’ products such as this had to be careful when it comes to consumer communication.

“We have seen new age products struggled because [the consumer-facing people], like the restaurant operators/chefs did not understand how to communicate with the consumers through menus [or other means],”​ he said.

“In other words, a product itself may have a good and unique concept, but [this will not come across] if let’s say it is put on a menu at restaurants and consumers are not [able to be] fully aware of the real value of the product.

“The good thing here is that [the plant-based wagyu] will sound familiar [to consumers], which will be very helpful for us to increase awareness of the value of the product as a new, innovative, high-quality meat substitute.

Fukuchi also remains confident that this product will work given the opening up of Japanese consumers to new food trends as of late.

“Japan is becoming more accepting of international food options – consumers have even begun embracing the California roll [which was not common here previously],”​ he said.

“[Plant-based wagyu] to me is similar and may take a little time to accept but eventually will be embraced by many in Japan as a product they can be proud of. As a Japanese person, I am very interested to see how it will add another layer to Japanese food culture.”

We had a very exciting discussion on the plant-based sector in Asia during the Plant-based Innovation session of our Growth Asia 2020 interactive broadcast series. Register to see this for free here​.

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