Until recently, American food startup JUST was mainly known as the producer of an innovative and controversial egg-free mayonnaise (at one point, its founder and CEO Josh Tetrick was hailed as “the Elon Musk of condiments.”)
However, in the past year, JUST’s flagship product became its plant-based, liquid egg. Simply called “JUST Egg”, the pale-yellow, bottled egg is made from mung beans, a legume cultivated in Asia. In a nutshell, the raw mung beans are de-hulled and milled to produce flour, from which the protein extract is separated thanks to a decanter centrifuge (head here for a more detailed explanation).
So far, JUST has sold the plant-based equivalent of more than 6 million chicken eggs (and counting) across the United States, Singapore, and Hong Kong.
Now, the company is planning to extend operations to mainland China and Europe. Cracking the Chinese market would certainly represent a major success for JUST given that, at the moment, the country consumes around 1 billion eggs a day.
Similarly, entering the European market — where EU forecasts say that in 2019 almost 400 million laying hens will produce around 7.3 million tons of eggs — would be no small feat.
Interested in how the company is planning to eat up the European market, I hopped on a call with Josh Tetrick, the founder and CEO of JUST.
Throughout our chat, Tetrick insisted on a word: “infrastructure”. One of the main ingredients of JUST’s recipe for a European success, he said, is the “solid infrastructure” the company is building on the continent.
“We were very happy to sign an agreement with the Italian headquartered Eurovo, one of Europe’s largest egg producers. They will be doing the manufacturing and distribution of our product. But we also have a deal with German poultry business PHW Group that will be assisting us with their expertise in distribution and logistics,” Tetrick told me.
The increasing number of apparently unlikely alliances between traditional meat, dairy, and egg producers and plant-based and lab-grown innovators is one of the most interesting features of the booming alternative proteins market.
“To be successful, we need to be cost-effective. And to be cost-effective, we need great partners. And if a meat, dairy or egg company want to partner up with us, I think that’s wonderful,” Tetrick commented.
When asked whether he thinks Europeans are more conservative than others when it comes to food innovation, the founder and CEO of JUST replied that “from Barcelona to Amsterdam, from London to Bologna, everywhere I went I always found people extremely open to thinking beyond traditional meat, egg, and dairy products. If you’re able to sell it at an affordable, competitive price, I think everyone will, in the end, prefer the alternative that is better for the planet.”
We will not have to wait long to see Tetrick’s assumptions tested: subject to European regulatory approval, the first bottles of JUST Egg are expected to be available in Europe in the fourth quarter of 2019.
But as you might expect from someone who has been compared to Elon Musk, Tetrick’s ambitions of disruption go beyond just mayonnaise and eggs. The company’s grand plan is to unscramble the entire food ecosystem, one product at a time.
For example, JUST is working to start selling chicken nuggets made from cells instead of slaughtered animals. A few lucky journalists already tried them but the general public should also have the same opportunity soon. It would be the first public sale of cultured meat.
Even more ambitious is JUST’s plan to develop high-end cultured Wagyu beef using cells from the prized cows of Toriyama, a Japanese farm.
Impressed by the number of (strictly metaphorical) horses Tetrick is betting on, I asked him why he hadn’t decided to focus on just one product or at least on just either plant-based or lab-grown food.
“We don’t pay much attention to the categories ‘lab-grown’ vs ‘plant-based’,” he replied, “for us, they are less important and defining than our mission to find ways to feed the planet in a sustainable way. But sure, the egg is by far the most important thing we’re doing at the moment and what allows us to do everything else.”
I don’t want to insist too much on this parallel but, like Musk’s Tesla, JUST went through its fair share of turmoil in the past years, too. Back in the day, when it was still called “Hampton Creek”, the company had to withstand a board member exodus, anonymous accusations of buying out its own mayo to boost sales in the lead-up to a venture capital funding round, and criticism of “shoddy science” from former employees (Tetrick says the latter accusations were “blatantly wrong”).
However, a few years later, JUST has left these turbulent episodes of its history behind, addressed the claims, and it seems ready to sink its teeth into the European market, sporting only the most positive qualities usually associated with the brand Tesla: sleek design, ambition, and unabashed innovation.
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