The aim, says founder and CEO Christie Lagally, a mechanical engineer and former senior scientist at the Good Food Institute, is to “catapult meat alternative production toward price parity with animal-based meat” so everyone, in schools, hospitals and corporate cafeterias, can enjoy it.
“We’ve been commercially manufacturing plant-based meat replacements for more than a hundred years but the industry as a whole still lacks scale and efficiency,” added Lagally, who has just joined the speaker lineup at FoodNavigator-USA’s FOOD FOR KIDS summit in Chicago this November.
“The meat industry has really innovated around production technology, but plant-based brands have focused more on making their products palatable and functional and some of them have done a really great job in recent years, but how do we make it scalable? What are the facility designs and production tools to make these products at scale, more efficiently?
“That’s the impetus for Seattle Food. We want to design the machinery and associated facilities to produce these products at scale. Plant-based meat chicken products for whatever reason have not achieved the price points we’re looking for.”
Chicken nuggets will be followed by chicken strips
For its first product – chicken nuggets - which will initially be targeted at the high-volume end of the foodservice sector, Seattle Food Tech is using a fairly standard textured wheat protein, safflower oil, an emulsifier, some starch, vegan flavoring and some corn-breading. The second product – chicken strips – has a similar formulation but also contains some soy.
“The key is the production process [rather than the ingredients],” said Lagally. “It’s how we process the protein with our emulsifiers and flavoring and how we keep the air out of it to create a really dense product that releases juice, not air, when you cook it.
“By redesigning the manufacturing process, we are getting much closer to chicken than what’s on the market today. We’re also thinking about usability and trying to understand how our products would be used in foodservice. A lot of foodservice companies don’t used plant based products because they come in tiny boxes, they don’t cook the same in the usual oven, they don’t cook at the same rate, and those things are really important.”
Seattle Food Tech - founded in 2017 - is a food manufacturing technology and production company on a mission to “catapult meat alternative production toward price parity with animal-based meat.”
This, claims founder and CEO Christie Lagally, can be achieved with novel food manufacturing equipment and processes designed to produce low-cost plant-based meat at high volumes, utilizing high-throughput manufacturing automation and ‘smart’ production centers, and new low-energy manufacturing tools.
People say this tastes a lot like Campbell chicken soup
But what about the flavor? Plant-based burger maker Impossible Foods has pumped millions into developing a fermentation-based process for producing ‘heme,’ which it claims is the secret sauce that makes beef taste like beef, so how can Seattle Food Tech hope to achieve similar results – albeit with a chicken analog - on a shoestring?
“There is a ton of great vegan chicken flavoring on the market and we can make a more southern flavored product for the southern states versus what people are more used to in Canada,” said Lagally, who recently raised $1m in a seed round led by Fifty Years, Blue Horizon and VegInvest.
“But we’ve been pretty successful in using one that people say tastes a lot like Campbell chicken soup. In fact one of the reasons it tastes so familiar to people is because it’s a vegan flavor that’s actually used in a lot of [real] chicken products.”
From a texture perspective, she said: “Our products have a really dense texture very like a whole chicken breast, because we use a special chopping process that ensures we don’t get a foamy product, which you often get in plant-based products which can get a lot of air in there or not enough water, which can make them dry. Our nuggets actually plump when you cook them and release a lot of juices and flavor.”
Some meat analogs are grown in fermentation tanks such as Quorn, but most begin with legumes (pea, soy, fava beans) or grains (wheat) that need fractionating to separate out the starches, oils and proteins. The proteins may then require stretching, kneading, shear-cell processing, press forming, folding, layering, or extrusion so the final product more closely resembles animal muscle.
“But the equipment used in the meat industry doesn’t necessarily work in plant-based meat,” says Seattle Food Tech founder and CEO Christie Lagally (pictured left).
“We’re designing the production of our chicken nuggets to be much more efficient.”
Hospitals likely to be first customers
Seattle Food Tech has a foodservice broker and other partners interested in helping it connect with institutional players in the foodservice sector, say Lagally, who noted that the American Medical Association recently announced that all hospitals should remove processed meats including chicken nuggets from all of their menus.
“Processed meat products are known carcinogens, so are offering a ready-made solution for hospitals to just switch over to another ready-to-eat alternative right off the bat, so we expect they will be our very first market.”
Schools are also interested in more plant-based proteins, in part because more students are vegans and vegetarians, and if you can offer a product that tastes and performs as well as meat and costs the same, it’s not a huge leap of faith to make the switch, she said.
“A lot of universities also have targets for reducing carbon emissions and some foodservice agencies are telling them that reducing meat consumption is one way to do it.”
A white label approach
So is Seattle Food Tech looking to build a brand, or is this a private label play?
“Initially we’ll be a white label product, as we are focused on manufacturing. We did a taste test with 40+ foodservice professionals and the response was overwhelmingly positive, in part because it doesn’t have gristle, which a lot of people don’t like when they bite into a chicken nugget.
“We hope by the end of the year to get some early products out via some partners, but to establish our own manufacturing facility with our own equipment, we’ll raise a Series A [financing round].”
Interested in serving plant-based chicken nuggets in your school or institution? Join Christie Lagally at the FoodNavigator-USA FOOD FOR KIDS summit in Chicago November 12-14, where you can also hear from a broad swathe of companies developing healthier products for children for retail and foodservice markets. Checkout the latest program and speaker line up.