US meat giant buys stake in vegan startup

US meat giant buys stake in vegan startup

Beyond Meat to take its substitutes mainstream

Ethan Brown, founder of Beyond Meat, prepares a new version of the company's vegan burger at Haven's Kitchen in New York in this March 31, 2016 file photo. (The New York Times photo)
Ethan Brown, founder of Beyond Meat, prepares a new version of the company's vegan burger at Haven's Kitchen in New York in this March 31, 2016 file photo. (The New York Times photo)

Tyson Foods Inc appears to be the first big meat company to invest in a business that, among other things, aims to reduce consumption of chicken, beef and pork by replacing it with plant proteins.

Tyson, the largest meat processor in the United States, announced on Monday that it would invest an undisclosed amount for a 5% stake in Beyond Meat, a company based in El Segundo, California, that makes "meats" from protein sources like peas and soy.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Beyond Meat this year began selling the Beyond Burger, for instance, a plant-protein burger sold fresh that sizzles and oozes fats while cooking on a griddle.

"The quality of the Beyond Burger is amazing," said Monica McGurk, a former Coca-Cola Co executive who joined Tyson in spring as senior vice president in charge of strategy and new ventures. "We think it's a game-changing product that gives us exposure to this fast-growing part of the food business."

Americans are eating more plant-based foods, leaving conventional food companies scrambling to catch up.

The Plant Based Foods Association said businesses in the US, which include Beyond Meat, Califia Farms and Heidi Ho, rang up $4.9 billion in sales for the 12 months through June, and grew faster than the food business overall.

The venture capital arm of General Mills Inc, 301 Inc, also has invested in Beyond Meat, as well as in Kite Hill, which uses nuts and other plant proteins to replace dairy products in cheese and other dairy items.

Michele Simon, executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association, said Tyson's investment was the first she knew of in which a big traditional meat producer took a stake in a plant-based company.

In 2014, Pinnacle Foods Inc, which owns the Armour canned meats brand, bought the maker of the Gardein line of plant-based meat substitutes. Armour, however, is a modest part of Pinnacle's business, which includes the Duncan Hines and Birds Eye brands.

"The question in my mind with these acquisitions is always why they're being done," Simon said. "The most positive view is that this means the meat industry is shifting away from animal meat to plant-based meat, but I don't think we know that's the case yet -- it could also be a way of distracting attention from their industrial meat business."

Ethan Brown, the founder and chief executive of Beyond Meat, said he knew the investment would raise eyebrows, particularly among the most ardent vegans and vegetarians.

"I'm hoping, though, that they and others will see this as part of a deliberate course of action to get out of the penalty box that's the 'alternative' section in the supermarket and get into a mainstream discussion with the consumer," he said.

Beyond Meat raised $17 million last year from investors. That was the third round of financing that CB Insights, a data collection and research firm, could pinpoint, and the only one for which a dollar amount was disclosed.

The company's goal is to take its meat substitutes mainstream. It has added Don Thompson, the former chief executive of McDonald's Corp, to its board and built relationships with entertainment and sports celebrities like Russell Simmons and Eric Bledsoe.

Brown said the discussions about an investment began with Hillshire Brands, the maker of Jimmy Dean sausage, before Tyson bought Hillshire Brands Company in 2014.

"I made a visit to their facility in Chicago, and the similarity between what we were doing and they were doing in making sausage was eye-opening," he said. "It could have easily been our fat and our protein moving through that system with little distinction that a consumer would see."

McGurk of Tyson, which is based in Springdale, Arkansas, said there were no current plans to use Tyson's extensive production facilities or distribution system to support Beyond Meat, though the relationship may develop over time.

"The investment for us is not about an either-or choice, it's about the 'and,'" she said. "This is just another form for consumers to enjoy protein as part of their daily diet." 

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