COLUMBIA — If you cooked fajitas with it, you might not taste a difference. With 3,999 followers on Twitter and 12,032 likes on Facebook as of Thursday, the Columbia company Beyond Meat has gained attention nationally and outside the U.S. from people seeking alternatives to meat.
The company has roots in Columbia and opened its production facility here last summer, where it produces Chicken-Free Strips designed to imitate the taste and texture of real chicken. Production has increased five times since January, Bob Prusha, vice president of operations, said.
Despite the proximity of production, the chicken strips have only been available in two Columbia restaurants, Main Squeeze and Smokin' Chick's BBQ, and aren't sold at any local groceries. Main Squeeze in downtown Columbia features the strips on its menu as an ingredient in many of its salads and soups.
“We really enjoy cooking with it,” Main Squeeze manager Katherine Wilcox said. “It’s a really great meat substitute to use in a lot of our specials in addition to tofu, seitan and tempeh. "Everybody in Columbia is really excited about it because they know where it comes from, since it’s made locally.”
The Chicken-Free Strips are sold exclusively through select Whole Foods stores nationwide in the prepared foods section as an ingredient in products such as wraps and sandwiches. The new retail packs began to appear in the refrigerated section of some Whole Foods stores in early April.
Beyond Meat is working on expanding its retail availability to other natural product stores and has sent a letter to retailers, including Natural Grocers and Clovers Natural Market in Columbia, to inform them about the product. The Chicken-Free Strips will become available in retail packs to Columbia grocery stores beginning July 1, Prusha said.
“With our stuff, we always look at the ingredients first,” Julie Hayes, Clovers Natural Market grocery buyer, said. “When it does become available, I’ll definitely be checking it out. It would be nice to get another local nonmeat option in here.”
The strips are “chicken-free” in the sense that they are made from soy and pea protein, flour and plant fibers and possess no meat. They are also gluten-free, vegan and made with nongenetically modified organisms.
Products will be available for purchase in 12-ounce packages in three varieties: lightly seasoned, grilled and southwest style for a suggested retail price of $5.29, Hilary Martin, public relations representative for Beyond Meat, said.
Company founder Ethan Brown collaborated with two MU researchers, Fu-hung Hsieh and Harold Huff, to develop the technology necessary to create the Chicken-Free Strips. Their work was licensed by the university and came with a requirement that the company make an investment in Missouri within five years of receiving the license.
That investment came in the form of a production facility that employs more than 30 people and has expanded its production so much since January that another labor shift was added in March, Prusha said.
The product utilizes Hseih’s and Huff’s research to create a plant-based meat substitute that has similar characteristics to chicken, both in texture and taste. It is an alternative suitable for people trying to make the transition from eating meat to becoming vegan or vegetarian and those who participate in Meatless Mondays or are looking for a satisfying, healthy alternative, Prusha said.
In addition to the Chicken-Free Strips, Beyond Meat is developing and producing an alternative to beef. The alternative is being called a beef crumble product and mimics ground beef, similar to the texture one would think of in a taco, Prusha said. When the product will be made available in local grocery stores is unknown, he said.
The company is also developing a breaded version of the Chicken-Free Strips, possibly in different forms such as chicken breasts, which could potentially be used in a wider array of dishes.
“We’re trying to make a product that doesn’t feel like you’re sacrificing, that you’re actually taking a positive step forward,” Prusha said.
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