As Chains Turn Meatless, Veganism Gets Mainstream Boost

Developing new plant-based protein meals is now seen as an opportunity for market growth in big companies, rather than a threat to their way of life.


May 28 2019, Updated 5:59 p.m. ET

Vegan options on fast food menus are becoming more common. Companies tend to roll out new recipes for short periods of time and only in specific locations, but the popularity of those dry runs mean that vegan meals at McDonald's or even Burger King may soon be the norm.

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Fast Company reports that 2017 showed many huge changes in meatless meat productions. Cargill sold its last cattle feed lot in April, indicating that they were interested in investing in other types of protein that are insect or plant-based. Tyson Foods invested $55 million in Beyond Meat, which makes protein meat substitutes from plants. Nestle bought Sweet Earth Foods, which makes meatless ham and bacon products. These big companies are following the trends, and all signs point to a future of veganism.

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Bruce Friedrich, executive director of the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that works to promote the interests of plant-based meat industry, told Fast Company that the shift comes largely from how fast food and meat companies perceive vegan food products. They can either embrace them as an opportunity for growth in a competitive market, or fear them and get left behind. 

“I think we’re going to see huge research and development based improvements in plant-based meat in the very near future,” says Friedrich. He also pointed to the popularity of milk alternatives in recent years, saying they're like a mini-history lesson in how plant-based meat products will be the new market.

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“It’s hard to turn back time and know for sure, but it sure looked to me in real time like Dean Foods buying White Wave was the precipitating factor that moved plant-based milk from the dusty nether-regions of the health food store into every Target, Walmart, Kroger, Safeway, and other grocery stores in the country,” says Friedrich. “So the fact that Cargill has purchased a stake in Memphis Meats, and Tyson has purchased a stake in Beyond Meat, and Big Food sees plant-based meat and clean meat as moving into the mainstream, will actually move plant-based meat into the mainstream.”

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Justin Whitmore, executive vice president of corporate strategy and chief sustainability officer for Tyson, agrees that the change is basically inevitable, saying Tyson now sees itself more as a "protein company" rather than meat producers, despite being the largest meat producer in the U.S.

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“When we think about investments like this, we’re thinking about an ‘and’ model, not an ‘or’ model,” said Whitmore. “So this investment does not cause us to rethink where we think the growth is in protein broadly in the other meat-based platforms. What it is, is access to new alternatives, innovation, and thinking that we think could be quite interesting and quite disruptive.”

Consumer choices have finally started to reach the top.

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