Sunfed Meats joins the race to find a new model for food

by Rob O'Neill / 05 September, 2017
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Shama Lee, founder of Sunfed Foods, tucks into a Thai chicken salad made with her new “chicken-free chicken” product. Photo / Rob O'Neill

Auckland-based company Sunfed Meats is taking a no compromise approach to producing meat from pulses, reports Rob O’Neill.

When Sergey Brin bankrolled the creation of the world’s first synthetic beef hamburgers in 2013, at the cost of US$330,000, smart people around the world began to pay serious attention to new models for human nutrition.

Brin had seen the future of the internet and created a global media and technology giant. Was he, once again, onto the next big thing?

Brin’s investment was driven by his concern for animal welfare.

"When you see how these cows are treated, it's certainly something I'm not comfortable with,” he said at the time.

But there are plenty of other reasons to search for new and better ways of producing meat – not the least of which is many of us like to eat it. If we want to keep doing so affordably and sustainably, new production methods will likely be required.

The problem is an energy one, says Shama Lee, founder of Auckland-based Sunfed Foods which launched its “chicken-free chicken” into over 40 local supermarkets in July.

Traditional meat production is really inefficient, she explains. We have to feed vast quantities of vegetable matter into our animals to produce a small amount of meat.

Sunfed Chicken Free Chicken is fried in a pan. Photo / supplied

“Food is another source of energy and just as there are sustainable and unsustainable forms of energy it’s the same with food energy,” she says.

Meat is one of most unsustainable energy forms because it's several steps removed from the ultimate source of our energy, the sun. To meet growing demand, we have largely stuck with legacy production methods but added more and more animals in ways that take a toll on the environment, on the animals and sometimes on ourselves.

“I want food to be good for the animals, good for the planet and good for humans,” Lee says. “That’s the trilogy. It shouldn’t come at the cost of something else.

“At moment we are stuck in an old way of thinking and need to break out of it. I took a step back, and asked ‘can we reimagine the legacy system and make it better?’”

Lee is at pains to say she loved eating meat when she was younger and understands why so many others do too. However, she began to struggle with it as she became more aware of the issues it raised.

“A lot of people give up meat, not because they don’t like the taste of it. Food is very comforting and at times of stress you crave the food your mother made. It’s a very emotional thing. I went through that.”

As technical architect, Lee likes to break problems down into a system and then to think about to make that system more efficient.

Watch Nigel Latta try Sunfed's chicken on his 'What Next?' show on TVNZ:

First, she says, we are all solar powered: our energy comes from photosynthesis. Plants were the original solar cells and the original battery packs. Second, in any energy system the closer you get to the energy source, the more efficient you become. Third, you need to think about what “middlemen” or stages you can cut out.

The solution was the animals – the most resource-intensive piece of the traditional production chain. Cut them out and the system becomes inherently more efficient. You get more bang for your buck, more scalability and less of a health risk.

The Sunfed journey began three years ago, after Lee found she was on autopilot and feeling unfulfilled in her programming career. She began looking for a meaningful problem to solve.

“I made a conscious decision this was what I wanted to do next with my brief amount of time on the planet,” she says.

She also saw opportunity in the massive growth of healthy food lifestyles such as vegetarianism and “flexitarianism” – when people have one or more meat-free days a week.

The move away from meat is especially significant among millennials, who are increasingly conscious consumers. They are aware of their impact on the environment and the impact of food on their own health and wellbeing.

Multiple research studies have identified that shift. Chicago-based research firm Technomic, for instance, surveyed 1,500 people in 2015 and found 45 per cent of younger consumers either regularly eat vegetarian and vegan food or follow a vegetarian diet. Among older people the number fell to 30 per cent.

Lee’s own early love of meat led her to set the bar high for her new business: her product had to be as good as animal meat in every way – taste, nutrition and texture.

She acknowledges the stigma around meat substitutes, saying that is earned because many of them are not very good. Sunfed, in contrast, takes vegetable protein and makes meat. Not a meat substitute: meat.

“By meat I mean meat, hunky, chewy chunks protein with all the fibres - long succulent fibres. I don’t mean tofu.”

We need a different definition of meat, she says. So, if chicken meat is 70% water, 25% protein and 5% “other” (fat, carbs and minerals), you have a new definition.

“With that definition you’ve expanded your possibilities and can take plant protein and meet that definition of meat.”

Sunfed chose chicken as its first product because it is the most widely consumed meat. The industry also faces challenges around production, including concerns about animal welfare, disease and use of antibiotics.

But to produce “hunky, chunky, chewy” chicken meat took a lot of R&D. Lee and her partner self-funded that through increasing their mortgage. More recently the seed funders arrived, two offshore and one local, to help develop production machinery. Next is a series A funding round to scale up to commercial production.

“People don’t realise how low-capital software is,” Lee laments. “All you need is coffee and a computer. But when it comes to hardware it’s tough. Every iteration costs so much money and need a whole team.”

Other products are now looming as well. Lee says Sunfed has made great chicken nuggets and also has a beef product on the way.

The launch has been more than encouraging, she says, with demand “way bigger than projected”.

While Sergey Brin may have ignited excitement about meat production alternatives, it is another Silicon Valley star Lee most admires: Tesla founder Elon Musk with his mammoth, huge ideas and massive hardware projects.

Tesla made cars better than the petrol and electric options on the market, she says. The same has to apply to Sunfed. The company’s products have to be better, healthier, more affordable, and convenient.

“The goal is to give consumers a real choice,” she says.

So far, Lee can say she has cracked three out of those four criteria – at $13 for 300 grams, her “chicken free chicken” is still more expensive than even free range chicken.

Scaling up production is key to achieving that last goal because then more can be produced without increasing incremental costs in tandem.

“You just need economies of scale and you will be, no doubt, cheaper than chicken. That’s what we want.”

Fish and pork products are also on Lee’s mind, as is an even bigger mission: to kick start a brand new, high skilled, green industry in New Zealand and diversify our exports.

“I don’t see any downsides to that,” she says. “I think that’s critical. We have been focused on meat and dairy so much, we think it’s all we can do.

“The rest of the world is already doing it. Either we do it or we get left behind – and I think we can do it better.”

Three new models for meat

Sunfed Foods founder Shama Lee says there are three major fronts on the new global rush to find new ways to produce meat:

  1. Cultured meats – these are grown from starter cells taken from animals such as stem cells. This is the method Sergey Brin bankrolled to produce his rich-man’s hamburgers.
  2. Plant meat - meat made from plant protein, on the model of Sunfed Foods. Sunfed Chicken Free Chicken for instance, is made from yellow pea protein.
  3. Bioengineered meat - where animal protein is grown from a bioengineered culture of yeast cells.



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