A few years ago, it felt like big food companies could do no right. The silver lining for upstart food product companies was just as much motivated by changing the status quo as it was bringing new products to market. Savvy consumers who care where their food comes from wanted very little to do with food brands that they perceived as “bad actors.” Touching on issues of environmental stewardship, food access, social welfare and more, large food companies have an even larger footprint and impact, and conscious consumers voted with their dollars to support brands that reflected their values.
And this trend is now catching up to Big Food, and having a huge impact on the response from the industry at large. In part, this has to do with the collective efforts of the Millennial generation: consumers in this age group at twice as likely to distrust large food brands. And, they are voting with their dollars to show their support for transparency, food ethics and sustainable practices.
This shift has not gone unnoticed by large food companies, which is why the news of Tyson's investment in Beyond Meat is so compelling for the future of the “good food movement.” While a pessimist could look at the Tyson investment and see a large food company trying to rein in a competitor, it’s far more likely that this could lead to even greater partnership between the two companies (and greater reach for Beyond Meat). It’s no secret that “plant-based” is the new vegan, and the Beyond Meat investment plays into this.
More to the point, it highlights a large food brand’s willingness to think beyond straightforward food products and support new innovation in the foodtech / food science space. In the short-term there are production, logistics and process advantages that Tyson can bring to the table. But, over the longer-term, scalability is the name of the game. As we think about the impact that new food brands can have, there is an upper limit to market reach (at least in the short-term). I was on a panel a number of years ago, and a fellow presenter put it this way: “While everyone wants to think that McDonald’s is bad and plant-based/alternative/lab-grown meat is good, the fact is that if McDonald’s decided tomorrow to swap even 10% of its meat for alternative proteins, it would make a market overnight.”
Back then, we were even further from any sort of insight into whether these alternative proteins would pan out (they certainly have proven the market thus far), but the point today is that if Tyson decided to put some of their considerable worldwide footprint towards incorporating Beyond Meat into their products, it would have a substantial and immediate impact on the way people eat, and the way that the industrial meat business can adapt. What’s most exciting to me about the Tyson news is that it highlights where startup innovation and Big Food infrastructure can meet in the middle to create real and lasting change. And, it potentially represents the start of a shift in perception: where it used to be “us” vs “ them” across the food value chain, this approach is more inclusive and conscious of the challenges that we face in changing our food system. While we can’t keep doing things the way we have, we also may find that large food companies have more of a role to play than we thought.
P.S. The founder of Beyond Meat, Ethan Brown, wrote an incredibly thoughtful and well-constructed piece on why he accepted the investment from Tyson. It highlights some of the comments about inclusion and building a better food system through partnership. Overall, it's just a really smart commentary on what matters most for influencing consumer taste.