Sort & Cull

Alternative Meat in the Meat Case

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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On a spectrum from carnivore to vegan, Tyson Foods and Beyond Meat are at opposite ends. Tyson is the country's biggest meat producer; it provides 25% of the country's beef and sizable shares of the chicken and pork. Beyond Meat is a startup company that aims to replace meat with plants; it makes burgers out of pea protein, palm oil and canola oil.

Of these two, then, it's tempting to say, as Rudyard Kipling said of East and West, "Never the twain shall meet." But meet they have. In the startup's latest fundraising round, Tyson bought a 5% stake (…). As if to underscore the oddity of this union of opposites, the Humane Society of the United States also invested in the round.

Carnivores and vegans alike had reason to feel sold out. Here was Tyson, apparently hedging its bet on meat. Should farmers who grow animal feed fret? There was Beyond Meat, fraternizing with the enemy. The reaction on the startup's Facebook page was scathing.

"Too bad Beyond Meat decided to sell their soul to Satan," went one comment. To which another responded: "I will never buy Beyond Meat products because as a vegan I DO NOT SUPPORT MASS MURDERERS."

Enter Ethan Brown, Beyond Meat's CEO. His remarkable letter explaining why his company is joining forces with Tyson is aimed at reassuring his vegan supporters, but it deserves a wider readership (…). Among other things it exudes civility, a virtue that seems in danger of extinction in these polarized times.

Civility starts with accepting that those who take the other side of an issue are not necessarily dingbats or degenerates. Brown believes that "animals value their lives as much as we do ours" and should not be eaten. Tyson obviously does not share that belief. "Do I think Tyson and its executives are the enemy because they have a radically different view of our relationship to animals?" Brown asks. "I don't. I realize that this may disappoint many people. In fact, I've found the Tyson executives with whom I've interacted to be principled and constructive people."

Civility implies a willingness to deal across the spectrum in search of common ground. "I don't expect to change Tyson. Nor does Tyson expect to change me," Brown writes. That said, Beyond Meat and Tyson have found they agree on "the need for sustainable protein for a growing global population; that innovation can fuel growth and profit; and that business best serves the consumer by offering choice."

Civility sometimes requires tempering idealism with realism. "It's one thing to express an idea among like company," Brown observes. "It's another to implement the same in the real world." Brown makes no apologies for taking Tyson's money. Beyond Meat needs more research funding if it's going to make the next big leap.

Beyond Meat wants to expand its customer base beyond vegetarian true believers, who shop in the "meat alternative" aisle of the supermarket and forgive meat substitutes their failure to duplicate meat's flavor and appearance. The startup wants to make plant-based products that look and taste and sizzle in the pan like real meat -- and are displayed next to real meat. It's getting close: Its Beyond Burger is already sold in the meat case at some Whole Foods stores.

"With Tyson's investment, we are expanding the Manhattan Beach Project, our already formidable research and development program to understand animal meat better than anyone else so we can build it from plants," Brown writes.

As to the vitriolic reaction from vegans, Beyond Meat says the best way to get people to eat less meat is "to give them what they love" -- delicious burgers -- made from plants.

What should carnivores, civil or uncivil, think of all this? First, they should ignore PETA's overwrought take on the deal: "The Future Is Vegan, and Tyson Foods Knows It" (…). They should keep in mind that for a company whose 2015 revenue topped $41 billion, this acquisition is barely a blip on the radar screen. Terms weren't disclosed, but it would be surprising if Tyson's investment equaled even a day's bacon sales.

They should be aware, though, that dating sometimes does lead to marriage. As Brown puts it, "The investment provides an opportunity for each party to get to know one another and to explore possible collaborations."

At this point Tyson is a passive investor. And getting true meat lovers to bite into fake meat is likely to be a steep uphill climb, however close to the taste and appearance of the real thing Beyond Meat comes. Still, who knows what might happen should the two companies go beyond mere civility?

If, someday, the meat behemoth were to flex its marketing and distribution muscle on Beyond Meat's behalf, alternative meat could make significant headway in the meat case.



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