THE belief that beef production will not be able to meet the growing demand from third world countries where incomes are increasing, and the desire to attract a new wave of millennial customers, was primarily the thinking behind Hungry Jacks' investment in a plant-based burger.
However, at the big agri-tech conference EvokeAg 2020 in Melbourne this morning, the mainstream fast food outlet's founder Jack Cowin provided additional insights into the seemingly out-of-left-field move by a business built on Australian beef and which still today sells 30,000 tonnes of beef a year.
The plant-based Rebel Whopper was launched last year, having been developed by a startup v2food and scientists from the CSIRO, and has been billed as a more environmentally and animal welfare-friendly burger option.
A $20m facility at Wodonga is about to be built to turn off the specialty product in larger numbers.
It has already been launched in New Zealand, Asia is next on the list and the plan is to supply the world.
Work has also started on a pork alternative because "if you follow the problems in China at the moment it's easy to see it evolving," Mr Cowin told the audience of an EvokeAg session titled Ag-itators.
But it's not just the product's potential in export markets that has given Hungry Jacks faith in its future, Mr Cowin revealed.
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The belief is it will one day it will be both cheaper and nutritionally superior to beef.
"Taste is number one - then comes benefits to the environment and sustainability," Mr Cowin said.
"I classify myself as having eaten more hamburgers than any other human in Australia and I was tricked during taste tests as to which was plant-based and which was real beef."
Rebel Whoppers are priced the same as beef burgers.
"One of the big benefits we see in plant-based is the capacity to be a lower cost supplier of protein than beef - we see that as a big advantage going ahead," Mr Cowin said.
And while he said the Rebel was currently a give-and-take on the nutritional front - "it has a higher level of sodium than beef but cholesterol is lower" - in the future that dynamic would likely change.
"You can control what's in it, where as the cow controls what's in a kilo of beef," Mr Cowin said.
"So long term, the goal is to have a product that is nutritionally superior."
Mr Cowin, who is also a major shareholder in Domino pizzas, said the partnership with v2food and the CSIRO worked very well and a product was able to be developed within a year, compared to US counterparts who had been on the job for five years.
"We had the good fortune of having 450 'test labs' in the form of Hungry Jacks stores we could put this product in to learn and adapt, which we have done," he said.
"We quickly found we could attract new customers we were not formerly getting - the millennials - anything planet-friendly they respond to."
Having said that, he was adamant he would "never say animals are bad."
"I'm a businessman and we sell a lot more beef than we do plant-based protein and we believe our beef volumes will increase," Mr Cowin said.
"We see plant-based as a balance."