Prime Cuts, 11 November 2020

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​.

However, there are many who are very sceptical of 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,”​ said Ibaraki Hitachiwagyu, Beef Promotion Association Export and Sales Promotion Staff Yoshio Shirota.

“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 said 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.”​

The plant-based wagyu proponents do not exactly anticipate a smooth road ahead either, with a Japanese food distributor saying of the product: “Japanese people tend to be conservative with food choices and can often view hyper processed vegan products as if they came from another planet.”