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Whopping costs: Why are we paying a price for being vegan?

Independent.ie logo Independent.ie 23/01/2020 Regina Lavelle
a close up of a sandwich sitting on top of a table: The Rebel Whopper is 20c dearer than its meat-based cousin at Burger King The Rebel Whopper is 20c dearer than its meat-based cousin at Burger King

As the end of Veganuary approaches, some may notice that it's not just the numbers on their scales going down - the bank account is also rapidly dwindling. Take the Rebel Whopper for example.

Burger King's "100pc plant-based" patty comes with all of the trimmings, including, ahem, mayonnaise. The company admits that it's "cooked on the same broiler as our original Whopper" and "due to shared cooking equipment, it may not be suitable for vegetarians".

A marketing director told the BBC it was aimed at "flexitarians", customers who are flirting with veganism, but not quite ready to commit. Whatever their motives, they can't have missed the price - €5.10, which is more expensive than its meat-based cousin, the €4.90 Whopper.

a man wearing a white shirt: Chef JP McMahon says buying vegetables can be as expensive as buying meat Chef JP McMahon says buying vegetables can be as expensive as buying meat

Cynics might call this a hipster tax. Even Burger King's own website alludes to it - the Rebel Whopper's tag line is: "A burger for the 'gram" - but this isn't the first time the vegan premium has been queried.

On his blog in 2018, the British journalist Harry Wallop examined comparable vegan and non-vegan foods. He found an average price premium of 57.5pc.

Only last week, the two Michelin-starred chef Sat Bains defended his refusal to cater to vegans on his £105 - £120 (€142) a head menu.

"We can be niche with our menu in terms of ingredients, so there are certain dietaries we can't do and won't do. I can't go to a vegan restaurant and ask for steak," he told Nottinghamshire Live. "Vegan food is the biggest rip-off. The ingredients are so cheap. I want to give people value for money."

Is vegan food a rip-off? If it is, it isn't denting the market's apparently insatiable appetite for new products. According to Mintel, there were 11,655 vegan food and drink businesses launched in Europe in 2019, compared to 6,042 in 2016 - an increase of 93pc.

While Bains contends the ingredients are cheap, Irish chefs disagree and maintain there are peculiarities to this market which prove the opposite to be true.

"Personally I don't think it's cheaper," says Michelin-starred chef JP McMahon of Galway's Aniar Restaurant. "If we have a tasting menu and we do cater for vegan and vegetarian, it's just as expensive. People would ring in and ask if there's a discount. There isn't. A kilo of wild mushrooms can be €25.

© Getty "Vegetables are not cheap. There's a perception they're cheap because they're sold below cost. They're just as expensive as meat."

McMahon says this price differential makes Irish vegan meals more expensive and means vegan products increasingly rely on imports.

"Neither ourselves or the UK grow enough vegetables to feed ourselves," he says. "There are only around 160 commercial vegetable growers left in Ireland. Myself and my wife are vegetarian and we know that it's cheaper to make a Bolognese than a ratatouille. If you're going nutrient for nutrient, you'll come down on the side of meat."

The difficulties of sourcing produce was raised by several producers. When Mark Senn opened Dublin's Veginity and later Vish Shop, he found this to be one of the biggest challenges.

"There were definitely issues sourcing different vegetables," says Senn. "I remember once passing by a grocery shop and there was a jackfruit on sale and I asked how much it was. He said €2.50. It was an 8kg jackfruit. I said nobody's ever going to pay that. But he was adamant.

"A few weeks later, I came across another place that had them and asked the price and the guy said €3 a kilo."

In Vish Shop, Senn makes a vegan 'fish' and chip. "I'd been working with cassava and making fufu, which is like a mashed potato/polenta sort of thing. I ended up adding some seaweed to it and it became vish and chips."

© Getty It is now a restaurant on Dublin's Blessington Street. But it's not as easy as fry-and-serve.

"The process is incredibly labour intensive, not just sourcing the cassava and the seaweed from the west of Ireland," he explains.

A full portion of vish and chips is €9 - in the same ballpark for a portion of cod in a chipper. But there's often, he says, an expectation that it should be cheaper. Of course, for the casual Veganuarian, a vegan restaurant may be beyond the pale. Their most frequent encounters with vegan products will be on supermarket shelves where consumers may well weigh up two similar products and wonder if they are being ripped off.

But it's not as simple as that.

Loughnane's butchers of Galway has been in business since 1939 and selling sausages since 1975. Recently, it branched out into the vegetarian and vegan market with its Eden range of burgers and sausages. The Eden sausage retails at €3 for six.

But Marketing and Brand Manager Leigh Carr says there is no contest as to which is the cheaper product to make.

"In terms of funding, a lot goes into the product development of a vegan product, hence why they tend to be more expensive. There is a lot to consider, including flavour profiles, and texture is a big consideration.

"Then there are the ingredients. Our vegan sausage is mainly soya and wheat protein as well as traditional sausage seasonings. The soya has to be imported by our suppliers.

"The raw materials are very expensive, partly because you don't have the same economies of scale, but even if we were making them at scale, they would still be more expensive as the production process is more expensive."

There is recognition at State level that some products require more investment than others to bring to market.

"Manufacturing some product types may require a high level of investment in specialised equipment," says Karen Tyner, Senior Manager for Prepared Consumer Foods at Bord Bia. "Other product types require much lower levels of initial investment, so your initial capital outlay will be much lower. It is important to ask how much debt and risk are you willing to take on."

© Getty For one young company, the amount of debt and investment required to stay on supermarket shelves was unsustainable. Despite winning a Blas na hEireann prize for his range of vegan meals, Phil Smith of Shoots and Roots pulled out of selling to supermarkets just before Christmas last year. He says the financial and resource costs were just too great.

"We had to make a call. We needed to scale up and move at a different pace. We'd have to take on more investment and more debt and I didn't have much more time I could give to it," says Smith, whose work day starts at 5am and finishes at 6/7pm, six days a week.

"Just before Christmas, we decided to pull the plug on retail and focus back with markets, festivals and events. By that point, you've probably spent around €20,000 on your kitchen and equipment. And then it's another €15,000 to get on to retail shelves with marketing, branding and nutritional analysis."

Veganism and vegetarianism is a growth market in Ireland. According to Bord Bia figures, eight per cent of us are vegetarian, with just over four per cent vegans.

There is little doubt that where industrial manufacturers are concerned, some vegan products are being marked up unjustifiably. But for smaller, independent producers, there are some genuine costs incurred in products not yet enjoying the scale of that of many meat producers.

As Smith of Shoots and Roots notes: "It's a growing trend and people are more familiar with it and willing to give it a go. But what I see when I look around is that the queues are always for meat."

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