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Avian flu prompting strategic rethink at US food companies, claims Hampton Creek boss: 'It's not just about price'

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By Elaine Watson+

26-May-2015
Last updated on 20-Jun-2015 at 01:10 GMT2015-06-20T01:10:16Z

Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick: “This is not about a quick fix…It’s about stepping back and saying, if you could redesign the food system from scratch, what would it look like?”
Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick: “This is not about a quick fix…It’s about stepping back and saying, if you could redesign the food system from scratch, what would it look like?”

The latest outbreak of avian flu has, predictably, prompted a surge in demand for egg replacers. But some industrial egg users are now considering making permanent changes to recipes and menus rather than just making tactical substitutions whenever egg prices spike, claim suppliers.

Josh Tetrick, CEO of plant-based food maker Hampton Creek, was speaking to FoodNavigator-USA as the American Bakers Association warned that almost 30% of industrial egg product production is now offline due to avian flu.

The recent surge in prices and anxiety about securing supplies had definitely focused minds, said Tetrick, with "north of 30 companies" contacting him over the past few days to find out what plant-based alternatives Hampton Creek could deliver.

But he added: “We didn’t have to wait for avian flu [to become relevant]. What really gives me confidence is the conversations we were having with major players like General Mills and Compass Group before the bird flu outbreak. 

“And they were not just about price – although our ingredients were 48% more cost effective than battery cage eggs even before the egg price shot up – they are also about water use, sustainability, animal welfare, and changing our food system. They don't see this as a one time incident, but evidence of a more fundamental problem with the food system.

“This is not about a quick fix. It’s about stepping back and saying, if you could redesign the food system from scratch, what would it look like?”

He added: "We don't have a vendetta against chicken eggs, it's more that the food system is increasingly misaligned with people's values."

Meanwhile, the fact that products containing egg cannot secure Non-GMO Project verification unless they can prove the hens were not given GM feed, was also impacting sourcing decisions, he said, although he stressed that he personally was still weighing the evidence over the merits of GM crops.

This is not about a quick fix; it’s about changing our food system

But why would leading foodservice and CPG manufacturers look to Hampton Creek - a relative newcomer - given that many leading ingredients suppliers have been offering egg alternatives for years, and have presumably racked up some serious application-specific expertise?

"Not meaning any disrespect," said Tetrick. "But their share [of the egg products market] is still barely detectible”.

Hampton Creek - which has been systematically screening thousands of plants with a ‘laser-like focus on functionality’ to identify those with properties such as coagulation, emulsification and aeration - had brought something new to the table, both in terms of ingredients (powdered/liquid egg replacers) and finished products (eg. its yellow pea-based ‘Just Mayo’ egg-free spread; or sorghum-based ‘Just Cookie Dough’), he claimed.

“We can search faster and be more accurate and ultimately select things that have more functionality and are more powerful than what is on the market today.”

Meanwhile, the fact that Compass Group had selected Just Mayo as the "standard mayo they use in their operations all across the United States, instead of Hellmann's and Bestfoods, and Just Cookie Dough [Hampton Creek’s egg-free cookie dough product] is becoming their core cookie" proved Hampton Creek was capable of playing in the major league, he said.

"It can take time to reformulate when you're replacing ingredients, whereas finished [egg-free] products provide a more instant solution, so we're accelerating the development of things like cake mixes, pasta, muffin mixes and Just Scramble [a scrambled egg alternative targeting foodservice companies that will launch before the end of the year]." 

Last year’s surge in dried egg white prices still fresh in memory of many food companies

So what do key ingredients suppliers think? Is egg replacement tactical - a temporary response to price spikes - or more strategic?

While eggs per se remain popular (per capita consumption has increased on the back of the high-protein craze , and eggs are back on the menu at breakfast time for Americans bored of ready-to-eat cereal), eggs products such as liquid or powdered eggs are more of a functional ingredient in many foods, said Ricardo Rodriguez, marketing manager, North America, bakery & confectionery at Ingredion.

And if alternatives can provide similar functionality, manufacturers are increasingly open to exploring them as prices have been so volatile in recent years, he claimed.

Meanwhile, the surge in dried egg white prices last year was still fresh in the memory of many customers, who were predicting things might not go back to normal for months given the severity of the current avian flu outbreak, he added.

Yes, it can take time and effort to change your recipes and labels because eggs are a simple, clean-label ingredient with unique functional attributes. But we've done a huge amount of applications work validating alternatives in scores of recipes, and if you do go ahead and develop a product [using egg replacers] and it’s doing well, especially if it's been on the market for a while, why would you change back?”

Egg replacement technology is light years ahead of where it was even five years ago

Although replacing 100% of the egg is not possible in every recipe without some element of compromise on flavor, texture or clean label credentials, he said,Egg replacement technology is light years ahead of where it was even five years ago.”

But he added: “We don’t overpromise. With something like angel food cake, we can help you create a great product with 50% of the egg, say, whereas with a glaze or a pasta, or waffles using egg whites, we can replace 100% of the egg.”

Agnes Lapinska, marketing manager, savory, at Ingredion, told FoodNavigator-USA that demand for egg alternatives "has been crazy” in the past couple of weeks, but noted that the desire to rid recipes of allergens or animal ingredients had been driving demand well before the current avian flu outbreak.

Ingredion's egg replacement toolkit had also become more sophisticated in recent years, with new products using faba bean protein concentrate complementing solutions based on modified starches and gums, she said.

 Read more about how avian flu is impacting egg supplies HERE .

1 comment (Comments are now closed)

Nutrition and consistent functionality are also important

Comments about replacing eggs with starches and vegetable proteins and gums miss the point of Eggs bringing great nutrition to the product as well as consistency. Eggs are consistent in there functionality while blends of plant materials likely are not, being agricultural products subject to annual swings. This is why I suspect replacers are typically not long term fixes.

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Posted by DFBusken
27 May 2015 | 18h502015-05-27T18:50:37Z

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