By Jason Spingarn-Koff
Real Fake Chicken: The
Op-Ed columnist Mark Bittman visits a factory that is perfecting a
new type of vegetarian substitute for chicken.
Published: March 9, 2012
IT is pretty well established that animals are capable of
suffering; we've come a long way since Descartes famously compared them
to nonfeeling machines put on earth to serve man. (Rousseau later
countered this, saying that animals shared "some measure" of human
nature and should partake of "natural right.") No matter where you stand
on this spectrum, you probably agree that it's a noble goal to reduce
the level of the suffering of animals raised for meat in industrial
There are four ways to move toward fixing this. One, we can
improve the animals' living conditions; two (this is distasteful but
would shock no one), we might see producers reduce or even
eliminate animals' consciousness, say, by removing the cerebral
cortex, in effect converting them to a kind of vegetable (see Margaret
Atwood's horrifying description in her prescient
"Oryx and Crake"); three, we can consume fewer industrially raised
animals, concentrating on those raised more humanely.
Or four, we
can reduce consumption, period. That is perhaps difficult when people
eat an average of
a half-pound of meat daily. But as better fake plant-based "meat"
products are created, that option becomes more palatable. My personal
approval of fake meat, for what it's worth, has been long in coming. I
like traditional meat substitutes, like
tofu, bean burgers, vegetable cutlets and so on, but have been
mostly repelled by unconvincing nuggets and hot dogs, which lack bite,
chew, juiciness and flavor. I'm also annoyed by the cost: why pay more
for fake meat than real meat, especially since the production process is
faster, easier and involves no butchering? And, I have felt, if you want
to eat less meat, why not just eat more of other real things?
October I visited a place in The Hague called
The Vegetarian Butcher, where the "butcher" said to me, "We
slaughter soy" -- ha-ha. The plant-based products were actually pretty
good -- the chicken would have fooled me if I hadn't known what it was --
and I began to consider that it might be better to eat fake meat that
harms no animals and causes less environmental damage than meat raised
(When I say fake meat, I don't mean the
much publicized laboratory simulacrum from Maastricht University
that combines pig cells and horse fetal serum, a mixture that's then
"fed" sugar, fat, amino acids and so on, to produce translucent strips.
We'll tackle that when and if it becomes marketable.)
I rather eat cruelly raised, polluting, unhealthful chicken, or a plant
product that's nutritionally similar or superior, good enough to fool me
and requires no antibiotics, cutting off of heads or other nasty things?
Isn't it preferable, at least some of the time, to eat plant products
mixed with water that have been put through a thingamajiggy that spews
out meatlike stuff, instead of eating those same plant products put into
a chicken that does its biomechanical thing for the six weeks of its
miserable existence, only to have its throat cut in the service of
yielding barely distinguishable meat?
Why, in other words, use the
poor chicken as a machine to produce meat when you can use a machine to
produce "meat" that seems like chicken?
I love good chicken, but
most of the chicken we eat doesn't qualify, and the question becomes
more compelling as meat imitators gain sophistication. The vegetarian
meat I ate in The Hague isn't widely distributed, but
Quorn, a mushroom-based product,
can be pretty appealing in some instances,
Gardein has made some
advances in soy-based products and at least one new product is a
better-than-adequate substitute for chicken in things like wraps,
salads and sauces. I know this because Ethan Brown, an owner of
River Farms, came to my house and fooled me badly in a blind
tasting. (A pan-European "LikeMeat"
project appears to be making progress on a similar product, and others
are in the works.)
On its own, Brown's "chicken" -- produced to mimic
boneless, skinless breast -- looks like a decent imitation, and the way
it shreds is amazing. It doesn't taste much like chicken, but since most
white meat chicken doesn't taste like much anyway, that's hardly a
problem; both are about texture, chew and the ingredients you put on
them or combine with them. When you take Brown's product, cut it up and
combine it with, say, chopped tomato and lettuce and mayonnaise with
some seasoning in it, and wrap it in a burrito, you won't know the
difference between that and chicken. I didn't, at least, and this is the
kind of thing I do for a living. Brown does not see his product as a
trendy meat replacement for
vegans but one with more widespread use. (His production is at an
early stage, but Whole Foods is planning to start using his products in
prepared food soon. Retail sales of his "chicken," which does not yet
have a trademarked name, are expected to begin this summer.)
it will replace some of the chicken in a McNugget, or become a meat
substitute at Chick-fil-A or Chipotle. (Department of Agriculture
regulations already permit up to 30 percent soy products in school lunch
We're ready for this. According to a Harris poll
commissioned by the Vegetarian Resource Group, a third of Americans now
eat meatless meals "a significant amount of the time," and that doesn't
include vegetarians, who make up at least 3 percent of the population.
These numbers would grow faster, advocates of meatlike plant foods
believe, if fake meat fooled us more often.
"When you �veganize'
food convincingly," says Kathy Freston, author of "Veganist:
Lose Weight, Get Healthy, Change the World," "people can enjoy a
healthier, better version of their traditional favorites. And if you
know that food won't hurt your body or the environment and it didn't
cause any suffering to an animal, why wouldn't you choose it?"
Indeed. This country goes through a lot of chickens: We raise and kill
nearly eight billion a year -- about 40 percent of our meat
consumption, compared with roughly 30 percent beef and 25 percent pork.
Chickens are grown so quickly that The Veterinary Record has said that
most have bone disease, and many live in chronic pain. (The University
reports that if humans grew as fast as chickens, we'd weigh 349
pounds by our second birthday.)
I don't believe chickens have souls,
but it's obvious they have real lives, consciousness and feeling, and
they're capable of suffering, so any reduction in the number killed each
year would be good.
If that's too touchy-feely for you, how's this?
Producers have difficulty efficiently dealing with the manure,
wastewater and post-slaughter residue that result from raising animals
industrially; chickens, for example, produce about as much waste as
their intake of feed.
Then there's the antibiotic issue:
roughly 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in this country are given
to animals, which has increased the number of
antibiotic-resistant diseases as well as the presence of arsenic in
the soil and our food. Work in meat and poultry processing plants is
notoriously dangerous. In 2005, Human Rights Watch
called it "the most dangerous factory job in America," and nearly
every test of supermarket chicken finds high percentages -- sometimes as
high as two out of three samples -- of staph, salmonella, campylobacter,
listeria or the disease-causing antibiotic-resistant bacteria called
Bill Marler, a leading
food safety lawyer, told me he assumes that "almost all chicken and
turkey produced in the U.S. is tainted with a bacteria that can kill
Until now, cost remained an objection. Some fake meat sells
for upward of $12 a pound, which is nearly four times the national
average for boneless breasts. Brown says that his price will be below
that of chicken.
All of this got me down to Cumberland, Md., where
Brown's pilot facility is housed, to make some "chicken" myself. The
process mimics that of
pasta, breakfast cereal, Cheetos and, for that matter, plastic. I
poured some powder into a hopper -- in this instance, soy and pea
protein, amaranth, carrot fiber and a few other ingredients (not many,
mostly unobjectionable and of course no antibiotics) -- and an extruder
mixed it with water, applying various temperatures and pressures to
achieve the desired consistency.
The thick strands that emerged on
the other end didn't precisely resemble chicken strips, and when I
tasted them unadulterated I found it bland, unexciting and not very
chicken-like. But not offensive, either, and as an ingredient we'd all
be hard-pressed to distinguish it from most of the animal-based models.
Even the Department of Agriculture is now on the side of plant-based
diets. Its "Dietary Guidelines"
eating patterns have been associated with improved health outcomes."
And almost all unbiased people agree that less meat is better than more:
for our health, for the environment and certainly for the animals
treated as widgets.
This article has been revised to reflect the
Correction: March 18, 2012
column last Sunday on a vegetarian alternative to chicken misidentified
an organization. It is the Vegetarian Resource Group, not the Vegetarian