A Major American Meat Company Is Betting on Plant-Based Protein
What does it say about the future of meat when the country’s largest processor of chicken, pork, and beef buys a stake in a start-up that aims to “perfectly replace animal protein with plant protein”?
Tyson Foods announced this week that it purchased a 5 percent stake in Beyond Meat, the Southern California–based food-tech start-up that made headlines earlier this year with its rollout of a veggie burger that reportedly cooks, sizzles, and tastes like real beef.
To be sure, Beyond Meat’s meatless patties have yet to take the country by storm. Although the 100 percent plant-based burgers have garnered plenty of positive press since they debuted in May, so far they’re only available at Whole Foods stores in seven states, where unlike conventional veggie burgers, the pink patties are sold near the meat counter. Even though the company’s “chicken” strips, “beef” crumbles, and meatless frozen dinners are available nationwide, Beyond Meat is hardly a household name.
That may be what makes the news of Tyson’s investment all the more noteworthy. While the two companies declined to give details about the deal, it’s doubtful that Tyson’s 5 percent stake made much of dent in the meat giant’s coffers. The company posted $41.4 billion in sales last year; prior to the deal with Tyson, Beyond Meat had reportedly raised $64 million in venture capital funding—about what Tyson rakes in before lunch on any given day.
Tyson is doing pretty great. The company reported record third-quarter earnings per share in August and says that it expects overall meat production to increase 2 to 3 percent during the next fiscal year. But like a big oil company shelling out cash to invest in wind turbines, Tyson’s toe-in-the-water move to team up with a start-up dedicated to bringing more plant-based protein to American dinner tables seems to suggest the meat industry is starting to see which way the winds are blowing.
Sales of plant-based protein, which totaled an estimated $5 billion last year, continue to pale compared with the market for meat in America—but vegetarian alternatives to meat are booming, with sales growing at more than double the anemic rate for food products overall. The steady drumbeat of news about the negative health impacts, environmental problems, and animal welfare concerns associated with meat consumption appears to be sinking in. According to a poll released in April, more than half of Americans surveyed said they plan to eat more plant-based foods in the coming year. Yet there may be no more telling sign that the meat-free market is coming of age than that the industry now has its own trade group, the Plant Based Food Association, which formed this year.
As one of the most talked-about players in the meatless game, Beyond Meat would appear well positioned to take advantage of Americans’ changing tastes. Producing plant-based products, like the Beyond Burger, that can go head-to-head with their conventional meat counterparts seems like a smart approach. But the disruptive game plan can make for strange bedfellows; in addition to Tyson, Beyond Meat counts The Humane Society of the United States as one of its investors.
It’s also liable to raise some eyebrows. As The New York Times reported, Beyond Meat was originally in talks with Hillshire Brands, maker of Jimmy Dean sausage, before Tyson bought Hillshire a couple years ago. Ethan Brown, founder and CEO of Beyond Meat, visited a Hillshire facility in Chicago. He told the Times that “the similarity between what we were doing and they were doing in making sausage was eye-opening. It could have easily been our fat and our protein moving through that system with little distinction the consumer could see.”