In 2014, Pinnacle Foods acquired Gardein, a beloved line of meat alternatives such as “Crispy Chick’n Patties.” This year, Canadian packaged meat company Maple Leaf bought Lightlife, a leading U.S. plant protein brand. And dairy magnate Dean Foods recently invested in the flax milk company Good Karma, makers of vegan yogurts and plant-based milk alternatives.
Such interest in plant-based companies from corporations that traditionally sell animal protein indicates a systemic swing in American eating patterns. Whether it’s for reasons related to health, animal welfare or the environment, people are increasingly swapping out meat, dairy and eggs for plant-based alternatives—and businesses are taking notice.
“This is definitely something where the meat industry is looking to redefine itself as a protein industry. That’s why we’re seeing such substantial growth in plant-based protein,” says Emily Byrd, senior communications specialist for The Good Food Institute, an organization that works through education and technology to dismantle the practice of eating animals. “There’s an entire coalition of investors working with more than $1.2 trillion in assets that have been calling on major food companies like Tyson [Foods] to divest from factory farming and look at more sustainable alternatives.”
The old vegan and vegetarian dogma
Passionate vegans and vegetarians may take issue with the convergence of brands that produce plant protein and those that produce animal protein. Since the 1960s, going vegan has often been considered a sign of rebellion—a way to ignite political and personal beliefs into action.
“Whether practiced by straightedge punk bands crossing the country in a van or animal-rights activists gathering for a rally, the embryonic incarnation of veganism usually came with a touch of puritanical renunciation,” journalist Jeff Gordinier once wrote in The New York Times.
Veganism in the late 20th century was all about widening the fissure between those who ate meat and those who did not—it was never about getting your friends and family to eat less meat. It was about converting them to your die-hard, make-no-exceptions vegan dogma. Even Isa Chandra Moskowitz, author of nine vegan cookbooks who played a significant role in mainstreaming veganism (she now owns a vegan restaurant in Omaha, Nebraska), launched her career with an indie TV show called The Post Punk Kitchen, in which she cooked up vegan dishes while live punk bands screeched in her tiny Brooklyn apartment.
How to get fewer people to eat animals
Like a tofu-shaped peg in a round hole, companies like Tyson Foods that thrived by supporting factory farms and slaughterhouses never fit into veganism’s stick-it-to-the-man origins. Indeed, indirectly supporting such Big Food brands through vegan food purchases seems contradictory—an abomination, even.
But the old way of promoting plant-based eating isn’t working.
The number of Americans who are vegans (2 to 3 percent) and vegetarians (5 to 8 percent) hasn’t significantly budged in decades. And while incendiary, heartbreaking images of poorly treated animals being raised for food—the way in which some organizations like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) promoted eating less meat in the past—may inspire some to transition to a vegan lifestyle, this tactic is polarizing to the majority of Americans, who are interested in eating more vegan meals but not ready to give up eating meat entirely.
The answer to getting Americans to eat fewer animal products may lie in making delicious new meat and dairy alternatives more accessible. With their national connections, large companies have bandwidth to widen supply and distribution of smaller vegan brands, which will likely reduce prices, too.
For Good Karma Foods CEO Doug Radi, Dean Foods’ involvement represents an opportunity to send flax milk yogurts and drinks across the nation. “This partnership will help us more quickly get our products to more stores so it’s easier for consumers to find and enjoy our products,” he says. “Additionally, the partnership will allow us to increase investments in brand-building and product innovation.”