One of America’s Biggest Meat Companies Just Invested in Vegan Burgers

It’s a sign of the times.

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Oct 11 2016, 4:55pm

Image: Beyond Meat's Facebook page

One of America's most carnivorous companies, Tyson Foods, is cashing in on the growing popularity of meatless meat. Tyson Foods announced Monday it has invested in Beyond Meat, snapping up a 5 percent share in the vegan food company.

Earlier this year, Whole Foods began selling Beyond Burgers—Beyond Meat's plant-based protein hamburger patty that "bleeds" when you grill it—right next to its real burgers in the meat cooler. As the plant-based competition begins to literally bump up against traditional protein sources, meat producers are taking notice.

Tyson is one of the world's largest food processors, producing everything from chicken and bacon to prepared foods like cooked pasta dishes and soup. It brought in more than $40 billion in sales during 2015's fiscal year. The fact that the company deemed Beyond Meat—a Silicon Valley startup with backers including Bill Gates and the Humane Society of the United States—worthy of investment is a significant moment for the growing plant-based food market.

Last year, the former CEO of McDonalds, of all places, joined Beyond Meat's executive. Vegan foods are no longer a fringe market catering to a tiny consumer base, they're a legitimate competitor to animal meat products. As more companies emerge and push the development of better plant-based foods, vegan meat may start eating some of regular meat's lunch.

"This investment is about 'and' — not 'or,'" Worth Sparkman, a spokesperson for Tyson wrote in an email. "We remain firmly focused on our core prepared foods and animal protein businesses, but also believe in giving consumers more choices. This investment gives us an opportunity to broaden our protein offerings."

But that angle, that this investment is just about offering consumers more choice, is a bit flawed. Unless you're doing a taste test, you are only ever eating animal protein or plant-based protein at a given time, which means consumers opting for vegan burgers aren't buying the beef sliders. And if Beyond Meat has its way, those consumers will start consistently choosing the former over the latter.

"The way I think about it is to not build a business on telling people not to eat meat, but to build a business around challenging what people's perception of meat is," CEO and co-founder Ethan Brown of Beyond Meat told Animal Charity Evaluators in an interview. "We don't try to battle meat and say that people shouldn't have it, we just do a sleight of hand where we change out the amino acids and lipids so they come from plants instead of animals, and that's it. Continue to enjoy eating meat, just eat meat from plants."

A growing number of consumers are embracing this idea, whether it's for animal welfare, environmental, or health reasons. Plant-based foods raked in $4.9 billion in the last year, a 3.4 percent growth, according to the Plant Based Foods Association, a plant-based food lobby group. Meanwhile, consumption of red meat has been declining (though chicken consumption is still on the rise).

Tyson's investment is, in reality, an opportunity for the company to hold onto customers making the swap to plant-based diets, and pull in new consumers that already gave up meat. And it's well-timed: the company's stock dropped last week in the midst of a class-action lawsuit that alleges Tyson Foods colluded with other chicken processors to reduce production. After announcing the investment in Beyond Meat on Monday, the stock started to rebound.

But framing this move as simply "another option," might make it a little easier to look your thousands of chicken farmers in the eye tomorrow.