Where's the beef?! Let's Talk Plant Based Protein by Mark Barnes



Our 2019 blog posts covered several overarching food safety themes, examining the 5 CDC risk factors and exploring food safety challenges throughout the “flow of food” phases of operation. Personally, I enjoyed reading the blogs posted by my colleagues as we tackled similar topics, each approaching them from our unique perspective and background. Moving forward in 2020, we’ll look to explore current events and trends in the industry, hoping to uncover best practices while considering the food safety implications.
 
In the spirit of staying current, our first topic (and one I imagine we’ll revisit) is the explosion of plant-based meat and dairy alternatives. One only has to visit a chain restaurant to see proof – Burger King, Fridays, Carl’s Jr., Red Robin, White Castle, Hard Rock Café, Cheesecake Factory, Qdoba, even Little Caesar’s and Dunkin ALL have either an Impossible or Beyond meat product on their menu. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg! In January alone, Starbucks introduced two new core menu non-dairy drinks and Ben & Jerry’s announced (another) non-dairy line of ice creams featuring sunbutter to accommodate food allergies (they’ve had a line of almond milk ice cream for several years).
 
Your average grocery store is keeping up too – what used to be a door or two in the frozen aisle has become entire sections of plant-based options. Even Costco, which in my experience tends to show up a little late to the party, boasts plant-based queso dip, Beyond Burgers, noodle bowls, almond milk, white “cheddar cheese” puffs, and much more.
 
And it’s not just the availability that’s improved, the quality has too. Ten years ago, if you could even find a bag of non-dairy shredded cheese, it would taste and melt just like plastic. Today non-dairy cheeses melt and taste better than ever (ok, it’s still not cheese), and you can find varieties of shredded, sliced, and block cheese – not to mention dairy-free fresh “mozz” and “Boursin style” cheese spreads among others. Similar improvements can be seen across the plant-based spectrum, from salad dressing to proteins. Don’t believe how good they’ve gotten? Watch one of Burger King’s new Impossible Whopper commercials.
 
To this point, I’ve intentionally omitted the word vegan. Not because I think it’s a bad word – I’ve been following a vegan diet for over two years now – but because it too narrowly focuses our perception of who these options are for. While the vegans are thrilled about more plant-based options, their presence on fast food and chain menus suggest that more and more traditional eaters (i.e. carnivores) are trying and accepting them as…good food! For many years and on many menus, if plant-based options showed up at all they were an afterthought, designed and assembled with little creativity or care – “it’s just for the vegetarians!”
 
In 2020, plant-based menu options aren’t a rarity, they’re a prerequisite - and they had better be good. More than ever, followers of traditional animal-based diets are adding plant-based components (hello, meat-free Mondays!). So how do we succeed with plant-based menu items? First, THINK OF IT AS REAL FOOD - not “rabbit food for vegetarians.” Second, TRY SOME - it’s not going to kill you to take a bite of some plant-based “cheese” or protein, in fact the ingredients used to make them are in the other foods you eat every day (minus the animal stuff, of course). Third, MAKE A GOOD, COMPLETE DISH – not an afterthought. You can even allow for add-on options with “real” cheese or bacon (i.e. Dunkin’s Beyond breakfast sandwich has dairy cheese and egg) to appeal to “traditional” diets.
 
As we embrace more plant-based foods on our menus, it’s also important to keep food safety top-of-mind. While these foods may be new for us and our employees, the standards provided in the Food Code still provide us with the guidance to serve the safest food possible.
 
Look for Barry’s next posting as he explores some of these food safety issues in more detail.
 
This blog is not intended to be a substitute for the user's judgement and common sense. Any errors are unintentional. 


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