Where's the beef? Vegetarian butcher eyes meat association membership
Nadim Diab
Jaap Korteweg from The Vegetarian Butcher. /The Vegetarian Butcher

Jaap Korteweg from The Vegetarian Butcher. /The Vegetarian Butcher

For a decade, Jaap Korteweg has been selling meat products. Mince, brats, burgers, bacon, kebabs, the whole shebang. Now, the Dutchman is looking to join not one, but two fraternities of butchers. But here's the snag: he refuses to kill livestock.

Korteweg is not your typical flesher. He doesn't carve up cows, turn pigs into pork chops, or dress poultry. In fact, no animals are harmed in the making of his case-ready meat.

He's one – arguably the first one – of a small but hard to overlook breed of specialty butchers selling meat made from plants, crafted to imitate the texture and taste of the slaughtered stuff. The Herbivorous Butcher, The Abbot's Butcher, The Very Good Butchers, you got the idea. Korteweg is De Vegetarische Slager, or "The Vegetarian Butcher," and he wants a seat at the table with his traditional counterparts. In meat-loving Germany, of all places.

The farmer-turned-entrepreneur has penned letters to the Federal Association of the German Meat Industry (BVDF) and the German Butchers' Association (DFV), a representative of craft butchers, seeking membership. The message was coupled with an application video posted last week on YouTube, which doubled as a manifesto for a meat revolution that sacrifices neither animals nor taste.

"My dream is to become the world's biggest butcher," Kortweg declares in the clip, before making his way into the kitchen, a cleaver in one hand and a bunch of carrots held from their green tops in the other. "If you love the taste of meat as much as I do, tell your friends about the vegetarian butcher who wants to join the German meat associations," he continued.

For a vegetarian business, this was an unusual move, if not totally unexpected given how fast the alt-protein space is taking meat mimickers from bland to banging. Meat impersonators, concocted especially to win over carnivore connoisseurs, are getting ever too close to the real thing.

No-meat pastrami sandwich by the Unreal Deli in California. /CFP

No-meat pastrami sandwich by the Unreal Deli in California. /CFP

Veggie patties now bleed, chickenless tenders have a chew to them, and mock pork fillings are fooling unsuspected dumpling lovers. Even steaks, long seen as the holy grail of fake meat because their fibrous texture is hard to replicate, will soon be coming to a printer near you.

Like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, purveyors of plant-based meat have made not only the impossible possible but the extraordinary ordinary as well. Today, their convincing concoctions are everywhere: supermarket meat aisles, fast-food menus, stock trading monitors, and probably your plate. Customers, more open to swapping beef with beans and chicken with chickpeas if their taste buds won't tell the difference, have come to expect the unexpected. Still, Korteweg's announcement caught people off guard.

"The superpower of cheeky humor," said one Tweeter. "Brilliant communication and marketing company? Check!" wrote another. 

But Korteweg wasn't mincing words.

"Our request is a serious one," affirms Amadea Boneschansker, Unilever's brand manager for The Vegetarian Butcher. Unilever acquired the small business in late 2018.

Germany seemed like a rational choice for the Dutch enterprise, which has operations there. Germans are all about all things wurst, and butcher shops have long roots in the country. It also happens that palates are changing. More Germans are eating meat less frequently (only 26 percent consume it every day, according to a survey by the Ministry of Food and Agriculture) and taking well to tofu and fleshier types of meat simulacrums.

A selection of sausages on display at International Green Week in Berlin. /CFP

A selection of sausages on display at International Green Week in Berlin. /CFP

"We call ourselves butchers. We offer a broad range of quality meats that you would find at your traditional butcher shop – the only difference is our vegetarian ingredients," Boneschansker told CGTN. "Like other butchers who process meat and refine it with craft and knowledge of the right ingredients, it makes sense to us to join these butchers associations."

But just because it quacks like a duck, it's not necessarily a duck.

"A butcher is a person who works with meat (and) meat cannot consist of plants," Dr. Reinhard von Stoutz, from the German Butchers' Association, told CGTN. This means it's a no for The Vegetarian Butcher's request to be part of their guild.

"Our members produce meat products and sell them in their own shops. Companies that produce other products, such as cheese or bread or vegan products, have different interests and therefore have their own associations," he added.

Another entry barrier that Von Stoutz pointed to is the size of the company. "Our members have an average of 12 employees. [Unilever] with 161,000 employees doesn't have the structure of a craftsman."

CGTN contacted the Federal Association of the German Meat Industry, but they would not comment on "current membership applications."

The linguistic hang-up on who is as a butcher and what they should be chopping and slicing is hardly surprising. It's an extension of the years-long turf war over designations traditionally associated with the livestock industry, which makers of the botanical grub have borrowed. Milk, cheese, burger, sausage, the list is anything but modest.

Plant-based beef burgers now bleed and brown in the skillet. /CFP

Plant-based beef burgers now bleed and brown in the skillet. /CFP

One camp says pea masquerading as pork shouldn't be equated to real flesh because it confuses consumers. In the other corner, opponents contend that provenance doesn't matter if their stuff delivers the exact same sensory experience as chomping on chorizo or nibbling on a nugget from dead animals.

It's a fight for survival, between newcomers relying on recognizable terminology to seek public acceptance of their newfangled offerings and veterans who fear they might be losing ground in a changing food landscape.

Korteweg is not shy about his mission of taking on the traditional livestock industry, but he's not exactly sharpening his knives for a duel also. If anything, The Vegetarian Butcher says cooperation is on the table.

"We want to become a partner (with the meat industry) and collaboratively work to redesign the future of meat," Unilever's Boneschansker said. "A better future for us would be if we can find a constructive way of working and share our passion for [meat] while releasing animals out of the food chain."

The brand's in luck; the German Butchers' Association isn't closing the door on joint action either. If The Vegetarian Butcher "can help us reach our goals, we would be very pleased," Von Stoutz revealed.

"We want to offer our customers high-quality meat products," he added – that's meat from animals, not animal feed, to be precise.