Is Big Meat the future of plant-based protein?
The “good food movement” faces a fundamental dilemma. It wants to remake the industrial food system, and it characterizes Big Food and Big Ag companies as the enemies. But what if those big companies start getting into “good food” themselves? Would the movement consider the trend a victory or a defeat? If the movement supports that shift, is it “selling out,” or is it getting corporations to buy in? It’s not always easy to tell, and it’s often a little of both.
There couldn’t possibly be a better example of this dilemma than in the news of Tyson’s investment in Beyond Meat, which the New York Times reported Monday. It is, by all accounts, the first marriage between the industrial meat industry and the plant-based protein business. And it might be just the beginning of a drama.
Tyson’s stake is just 5 percent, but that’s more than enough to ignite vegetarian, vegan, and Big Food-loathing ire. “#boycottBeyondMeat for Tyson blood money deal,” read one tweet on Monday.
Like most other meatpackers and certainly all of the largest ones, Tyson has long been the subject of harsh criticism for its business practices surrounding animal welfare, antibiotic use, workers’ rights, environmental damage, and much more.
On the other hand, Beyond Meat (a household name in the nascent world of alternative protein) is a bit of a media darling: ecstatic headlines trumpeted its burger debut at Whole Foods, where the product sold out in a matter of hours.
Beyond Meat did not readily respond to requests for comment, but CEO Ethan Brown told the Times that he expected some blowback from critics. “I’m hoping, though, that they and others will see this as part of a deliberate course of action to get out of the penalty box that’s the ‘alternative’ section in the supermarket and get into a mainstream discussion with the consumer,” he told the paper.
Reactions from other key figures in the food movement range from positive to conflicted. “I am concerned about companies like Tyson, that built their success on extremely intensive and exploitive business practices, investing in the plant-based foods sector,” says Michele Simon, executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association.
She also notes that there are “significant conflict-of-interest questions” involved, because her member companies, which include familiar alternative protein brands like Tofurky and Daiya Foods (but not, for the moment at least, Beyond Meat), have political interests that focus on the “unfair advantages,” such as massive federal subsidies, enjoyed by Big Meat companies. “It’s unlikely that companies like Tyson would support such efforts,” says Simon.
Probably true. On the other hand, some formerly independent companies now owned by large conglomerates remain publicly opposed to the interests of their owners. Perhaps most famously, Ben & Jerry’s never stopped supporting liberal causes after it was bought out by Unilever, even when the corporation and its subsidiary were on opposite sides. That could be a sign that corporations, at least in some cases, have come to learn that when they buy a brand, they’re buying the whole brand. Stifling Ben & Jerry’s would have meant tarnishing the brand, which could have hurt sales.
Simon, a longtime fierce critic of Big Food before she joined the PBFA last year, can’t help but be skeptical of the Tyson investment. But she’s also a realist, as she must be in her current position. “If they are joining to promote plant-based foods, it’s a good thing,” she says.
Tofurky CEO Jaime Athos is less hesitant in his enthusiasm for the investment. “I see it as a good sign,” he says. Tyson is, perhaps, “seeing the threat to its core animal-protein products, and they’re diversifying.” As for the critics: “I see where they’re coming from: Are Beyond Meat profits supporting the abuse of animals and so forth?” But Athos thinks that if Beyond Meat, and any similar companies that might take such investments, are better able to market their products thanks to corporate investments, it can only further their goals. “Ultimately this is a problem that consumers will solve,” he says.
Tofurky is family-owned and not considering taking any corporate investments. Simon noted that some other members of the PBFA have been approached with deals similar to the Tyson investment, but have passed “because remaining independent is important to them.”
It appears that taking such investments is much easier now than it would have been, say, 10 years ago. That’s possibly in part because so many organic and “natural” brands are owned by large corporations, and it can be hard to even keep track of which are truly “independent.”
Some deals have proved problematic, as when Kellogg purchased Kashi, a maker of “natural” cereals in 2000 and attempted to fold it into its existing portfolio of brands (and manufacturing practices). When in 2012 it was discovered that Kashi products contained GMOs, the news ignited a firestorm.
But other deals have run smoothly, with big companies managing their new brands much more deftly. “When Boca [Burger] was bought by Kraft, there was a lot of consternation in the anti-factory farming community,” notes Bruce Friedrich, executive director of the Good Food Institute. “But it ended up increasing Boca’s advertising budget and distribution exponentially. Similarly, the purchase of WhiteWave [maker of Silk] by Dean Foods is probably the single biggest factor in the fact that plant-based milk is now omnipresent in grocery stores. They took plant-based milk from zero percent of the market to more than five percent, and set it on its current trajectory.”
Friedrich is all for the Tyson investment in Beyond Meat. While he says people concerned about social impact should be ever-watchful, “I don’t think anyone needs to worry too much about Tyson owning five percent of a plant-based meat company.”
Michael Pollan, journalist and author–perhaps most notably of The Ominvore’s Dilemma—has been deeply skeptical in the past about forays by Big Food into “good food.” He’s somewhat less so of late, but he, too, advises wariness. The Tyson investment “strikes me as a sign the meat industry at a minimum wants to cover its bets and at a maximum is looking ahead to a time when meat alternatives will be an important market segment,” he says. “That’s encouraging. But there’s also the case of the electric car to keep in mind.”
Note: After this article was published, New Food Economy learned that Friedrich is a managing trustee at New Crop Capital, which is an investor in Beyond Meat. He did not mention this relationship during an email interview. We regret the oversight.