As a nation, we have a relationship with meat that runs deep.
The footy pie, the sausage sizzle and a slab of steak are a celebration of everything Australian. But a new sector is opening up that looks to switch our meat for something healthier, failing that, something more environmentally friendly. And with an ever-growing number of vegans and vegetarians demanding for more meat free options, the industry is taking a big leap forward.
Much of the chatter in recent years has been around lab-grown or 'clean meat', often called 'guilt free meat', which sees animal cells grown in labs and turned into steaks and cutlets through a process not unlike 3D printing. Yet it is expensive. It's estimated to cost as much as $20,000 to grow a kilogram of meat in a lab, deeming it an unviable consumer product for the time being.
This interest is however bringing investment and innovation across the wider sector. Where once an overcooked portobello mushroom may have been slapped in a bun as a menu's sole meat-free option, now a host of faux meat substitutes offer both substance and taste.. Natalie Guy, owner of La Viva Vegan, a Perth-based retail shop and online store, says the market has changed dramatically in recent years as meat-free products improve.
"Supermarket soy-based cheeses were not so easy on the palate, now our customers are spoilt for choice," she says, citing tasty new products utilising macadamias, almonds, cashews, coconut oil and soy as the reason for customers making the switch. Guy says now that bigger brand names are dabbling in the field, interest in animal-free products will only increase.
This month, local burger chain Grill'd made the move to swap traditional meat patties for Beyond Meat patties, a plant-based burger that claims to "look, cook, and satisfy like beef" without the gluten, soy, or GMOs. Running the special for 24 hours and with 137 outlets across the country, the operators say the demand for vegan options is "very real", adding that they've seen a correlation between the increase in sales of meat-free burgers and the subsequent decrease of their meat ones.
Major burger chain Hungry Jacks is also dipping a toe into the market with its Impossible Burger tagged the "Impossible Whopper". The market test could lead to the largest restaurant industry embrace of a plant-based meat substitute yet.
Adrian Apswoude, director of Ka Pies in Melbourne, says these signifiers reflect a change in product offering and a change in attitude. By swapping meat for soy-based minces and marinades and putting real time into creating flavour and texture, his alternatives are almost indiscernible to the average palate. Ka Pies have drawn praise for their similarity to traditional artisanal meat pies. "Tradies buying them in our shop couldn't tell the difference," he laughs. "They were initially confused when they were told they were vegan but they kept coming back."
"We won 'Australia's Best Pie' in 2016 and later 'Most Innovative Pie' with our chilli con carne," says Apswoude, acknowledging that as beef gets more expensive, it is understandable that "even meat eaters are interested" in sometimes going meat-free.
Walk down an aisle at your local Coles or Woolies and you'll find faux mince by Funky Fields and faux chick'n nuggets by Unrealco nestled next to lamb cutlets and whole chooks. Beside imported brie and Greek yoghurt you'll also find animal-free options. These plant-based alternatives are increasingly available across Australia. In areas where supermarkets choose not to stock these items, online sites such as lavidavegan.com.au, veganperfection.com.au and crueltyfreeshop.com.au offer a variety of local and imported meat free products suited to everyday meat focused recipes.
But it's not just red meat that is getting an overhaul. Fish-free fish is also a real thing as concerns over the sustainability and ethics of farm fishing rise. At present vegan seafood products are drawing on the versatility of kelp. GlobExplore has been recognised for its salted seaweed product and Chilean company Quelp has received praise for its kelp-based burger.
Natalie Guy has also noticed a big development within sector as brands such as Sophie's Kitchen continue to market plant-based prawns, smoked salmon and scallop variants. "We are seeing more customers coming into the store to find replacements for their favourite animal products," she says.
Australia has an entrenched relationship with farming meat and although there is much in the way of innovation when it comes to finding alternatives to a Friday chicken parma or summer barbecued prawn we're a long way from ditching it altogether. But with health and environmental awareness on the up and an emphasis being placed on what we eat and how it effects the world, it's highly likely that even the most ardent carnivores will cave to a fishless fillet or a meatless meatball some time soon.