Four degrees of separation: how to sell a vegan restaurant dish

Imagine a certain vegan dish in a restaurant. Let’s say it’s a dish called “Moroccan couscous”. Which of the following situations do you prefer?

When I asked what you prefer, the answer you give will of course depend on the criterion you use to assess these situations. Are you thinking about your own convenience? In that case you may prefer option one: in vegan restaurants, there is no hassle, there are no queries, no risks, no uncertainties. If you can’t have a vegan restaurant, you may prefer your vegan dishes to be clearly and neatly separated from the other ones. A physically separate vegan menu may give you the feeling that you’re really being looked after here.
But of course, our own convenience isn’t the most important aspect here – at least it isn’t for me. Much more important is: how many people will order this vegan dish?

If we look at this criterion, then we may have to conclude that the vegan restaurant may not necessarily be the best option. There are, presumably, many people who never set foot in an exclusively vegan place. At least they may not do so voluntarily (they may be dragged along by the vegan in the company). So a vegan offering inside an omnivore place may – at this point in time – be able to confront more non-vegans with the vegan idea and option than a vegan restaurant can. (This is not to say that vegan restaurants don’t have any advantages – see Vegan Islands vs. Infiltrators.)

But also within the context of an an omnivore restaurant, we have different ways of separating the vegan from the non-vegan. To what degree should we separate and identify vegan dishes?

A separate vegan menu (option 2), like I said, gives us a nice feeling, but I’m not sure if it’s very productive. The many restaurants in billionaire Steve Wynn’s Las Vegas hotels all have separate vegan menus, but as a customer, you have to know that. The waiters don’t offer this information spontaneously, so there is little chance that a non-vegan will order a vegan dish there.

The next degree of separation is a separate vegan section on the (same) menu (option 3). Is this an interesting option? Here’s where a new study, done at the London School of Economics comes in. Behavioral science researcher Linda Bacon (I know) investigated if plant-based dishes were ordered more or less frequently when they were listed separately on a menu. The result was that in the case of a separate vegetarian section, the likelihood that these dishes were ordered dropped by a staggering 56%! (I’m assuming that the difference would be bigger still if the section carried the name “vegan dishes”).

One of the possible explanations is that a separate section may reinforce the idea among omnivores that vegetarian or vegan dishes are not for them. Imagine how you look at a section that says “gluten free” or “suitable for the lactose intolerant”. If you don’t belong in the category of people that prefers these foods or needs to eat this way, you may think that these dishes are not for you and, what’s more, lacking in something. Even worse than “vegan dishes” would obviously be a section titled “for vegans” or “for our vegan friends”. Even though this wording is rare (I have come across it) this is how most people think about vegan dishes: as dishes for vegans. In newspaper articles and reviews, vegan products, vegan fairs, vegan restaurants… are very commonly described as stuff for vegans. As vegans ourselves, we should be careful not to confirm this idea, and not automatically presume that whoever uses a vegan product, whoever is present at a vegan fair or a vegan talk… is a vegan. We are only confirming the separation between vegans and non-vegans that way.

So, at least if we’re just looking at sales figures, it seems, for now, that we shouldn’t separate vegan dishes on the menu. The next degree of separation is about incorporating the dish in the menu (option 4) while clearly labeling it. Here, of course, much will depend on the exact label we use. There are different possibilities: vegan, plant-based, vegetarian, meat-free… Alain Coumont, founder of the world famous chain Le Pain Quotidien, prefers the term “botanical”. Also, different degrees of subtlety can be used. The label can be in small or big letters, bold or not, or we could put an asterisk (*) after the menu item and explain at the bottom of the page that these are vegetarian (vegan/plant-based…) dishes. I think we should not worry about the (in)convenience for vegans here. A vegan is used to scanning menus and looking out for these things. What matters, again, is how many people order the dish.

Finally, we can avoid separating vegan from non-vegan at all (option 5). This means not communicating at all that a dish is vegan. I’m guessing that this would maximize the amount of vegan orders. But there are some downsides to this. First of all, much less than the previous options, this is not convenient for vegans at all. More importantly, if vegans don’t patronize a restaurant because at first sight it doesn’t have any vegan options on the menu, we will not be able to help boost the restaurant’s sales of the vegan dishes, and thus their commitment to offering them. In addition to that, many people may order these vegan dishes, but one could argue that if they don’t know a dish was vegan at all, it may be a missed opportunity (see also The Rise of the Stealth Vegan Restaurants).

Obviously, apart from the degree of separation and the labels we choose, there are many other factors that can influence customers’ choices. Apart from pricing, there is, for instance, the name of the dish. We can call a dish “Moroccan couscous with market fresh vegetables, toasted spices and fresh mint”, and make it sound so tasty that anyone might choose it.

As with many things, which choice is the best one is a matter of time. We can do more research and see what people want to order and eat. But if they don’t want to order vegan, that doesn’t just mean we should be careful with the label vegan (and separating the vegan from the non-vegan). It also means that we need to work more on the popularity and image of the term (assuming a term like vegan is a useful thing to have).

Ideally, vegan becomes an extremely positive term and thus a label that increases sales. We are not there yet, but we need to work towards this. The vegan movement can help with this too, in different ways. First of all, we should not see it as a negative thing when “vegan” becomes a trend, as seems to be happening in more and more places. We should appreciate any reason why people choose vegan, even if those reasons may seem superficial to us. I think it’s not a good idea either if we go around saying how all of this has nothing to do with veganism (because veganism is about ethics, etc. – see “Don’t you dare call yourself a vegan“). Every time someone orders a (good) vegan dish, for whatever reason, things happen. Restaurants notice the interest. And people have a good taste experience and their hearts and minds open up a little bit more to all our moral arguments.

Thoughts on taste: eating the Impossible Burger

Recently, during a visit to New York for the Reducetarian Summit, I had the opportunity to eat my very first Impossible Burger…

Impossible Foods, as you may know, is a company started by world renowned Stanford professor Patrick Brown, who, with his extensive knowledge of chemistry, set out to create the ultimate plant-based burger. Impossible Foods has raised 180 million dollars in venture capital to do this. Today, the burger is available in select locations in the US, and has received lots of media attention. It’s become something of a hype.

I had my Impossible Burger at Bareburger, a burger place near New York University (end of May 2017). While this restaurant was modest and low key, the burger is also available in more upscale establishments. My burger came with lettuce, onions, dill pickles, and a “special sauce”. Cheese and bun by default were not vegan, but I had those substituted. I had the burger with French fries and a glass of “American white”, as it was listed on the menu. The burger cost $13.95 or about $18 including tax and tip – definitely not cheap for this kind of food, even if it’s New York City.

This picture will not win any food photography contests, but it’s meant to show the meat-like texture of the Impossible Burger.

As you can see on the picture, the burger looks like and has the texture of very juicy minced meat. I would have preferred the product to have been cooked a little more: it almost seemed raw (looking a bit bloody indeed). I don’t know if this is according to Impossible Foods’ idea and instructions, or if this is the way Bareburger likes to make it (or even if it was just due to the chef, or completely accidental). In any case, if you’d do this with meat, you’d risk not killing the bacteria in it.
Most importantly: the taste. I quite liked it, but I detected some flavor or aftertaste that I’m less fond of. It’s hard to describe, but I would call it an “animal” or “earthy” flavor. I’d need to have the burger again to be sure that I wasn’t making this up, or that this flavor didn’t originate from something other than the burger.

So how does it stand up compared to other vegan burgers? And is this product really such a breakthrough? It’s hard to answer these questions as someone who hasn’t eaten meat in over twenty years. The Impossible Burger is made to convince meat eaters. Vegans are not the primary intended audience, and indeed, only the vegans who could theoretically still appreciate the texture and taste of meat (the ones who don’t shy away from convincing imitations) need apply. To me this burger certainly seemed the closest imitation to meat – both in terms of taste and texture – that I can recall. However, I have tasted many other vegan burgers that I enjoyed at least as much – but again, I’m not the target audience.

I also realized that by the time I sat down to have my first bite, I was already heavily biased. This burger is kind of the hottest thing under the sun in Vegan-country right now. And I was having it in the coolest place on earth: New York City. I was going to have an experience that hardly any one of my vegan friends back home had had. It would be very hard not to like it.

All this made me think of the role that basically irrelevant non-taste factors can play in a taste experience.

When companies spend a lot of money on advertising, they are not just making sure the public knows about their products existence. The advertisements also serve – very obviously – to create a certain positive image for whatever the company is selling (including their brand). This image can be built around all kinds of values, like coolness, innovation, exoticness, strength, safety, happiness, etc. When people associate positive values (i.e., values they cherish) with the product in question, this will not just incite them to buy the product: in the case of food products, these value associations can also influence what they feel the product actually tastes like.

To see more clearly how taste experience can be influenced by non-taste factors and how this relates to plant-based foods, let’s briefly look at one study. A 2008 paper titled The Interactive Effect of Cultural Symbols and Human Values on Taste Evaluation concludes that what influenced study participants in how they rated the taste of foods, was what they thought they had eaten rather than what they actually ate.
The setup was as follows: study participants were given either a beef sausage roll or a veggie roll. Some of those who got the veggie roll were told they got a beef roll, and some of those who got the beef roll were told they got a veggie roll. Researchers asked participants to fill out a questionnaire about how they rated the product they ate, but which also contained questions about values. What the researchers found was that especially the people who endorsed the values traditionally represented by meat (power, strength, virility…), would rate the meat item as better in taste… even when they thought they were eating meat but were actually eating a vegetarian product. Conversely, people who ate the vegetarian product but thought they were eating beef, would not rate the taste of the vegetarian product less than those who ate beef. “What influenced taste evaluation was what they thought they had eaten and whether that food symbolized values that they personally supported.”

The implication of this, of course, is that apart from getting the taste (and also texture, aroma, etc.) right, we also need to make sure that people associate plant-based products with values and ideas that they cherish. We need, in other words, to build a good image for meat alternatives. (Alternatively, we can try to change what values people find important, which is probably a slower way, but which, of course, can be necessary in some cases – cherishing values like virility or power is not necessarily beneficial for individuals and society).

Even though we associate the words and concepts vegetarian and vegan with values like compassion, care, sustainability, etc, they are, in the minds of many other people, also associated with negative values and ideas. Vegans themselves can, of course, contribute to changing the ideas and values associated with veganism and vegan foods. But like it or not, commercial advertising, marketing, branding… can also help do that. They can help change the associations people have with animal product alternatives, and get them to consume more of them. The Impossible Burger, while impressive in taste and texture, is helping to create a better, trendier, more innovative image for plant-based foods.

Vegan outrage over a Hampton Creek cookie? Let’s get some perspective.

In recent days it has come to light that Hampton Creek, the maker of Just Mayo and Just Cookies, produces one cookie with white chocolate chips, which contain milk powder. As could be expected, many vegans expressed their disappointment on Hampton Creek’s social media channels, sometimes gracefully, sometimes less so.

Hampton Creek’s mayo, dressings, cookie dough, and all but this one cookie in their food service range, are vegan. In the short time since it was founded, the company has been incredibly successful. It was able to raise almost one hundred million dollars of venture capital from Bill Gates and other big shots, allowing them to put together a dream team and invest a lot in research and communication. But Hampton Creek also helped demonstrate that a plant-based future is interesting to invest in. And they have helped further normalize plant-based eating with the enormous media attention they have garnered. More concretely, however, their products are now helping to make a vegan diet easier for everyone, and are being used by big food service providers in the US. And while they were at this, they have inadvertently stimulated Unilever to create their own vegan mayo. Talk about results!

So what exactly is the shit-storm about? Some time ago, Hampton Creek signed a contract with the nation’s largest food service provider, the Compass Group. Hampton Creek would supply Compass with plant-based alternatives for their range of (non-vegan) cookies. Apparently Hampton Creek was, so far, not able to find vegan white chocolate chips that met with Compass’ approval. According to Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick, it was a package deal: either HC supplied five vegan cookies and the one almost vegan macadamia cookie, or they wouldn’t get the contract and thus have no impact for the animals at all. So HC decided to move forward, and supply Compass with their imperfect offering, while working on finding or developing suitable vegan white chocolate chips.

Many of the commenting vegans demonstrate incredulity at Hampton Creek’s inability to find or develop suitable white chocolate chips. I’m giving HC the benefit of the doubt, and am assuming that creating even one non-vegan product is not something that they would do without good reason, because they must know it creates confusion. So I’m assuming that time or other factors were of the essence and that they were afraid of losing the contract – in which case, again, they would have had no impact for the animals at all.

Should Hampton Creek have held off cooperating with the food service provider until they had all vegan alternatives? Let’s assume Compass was patient enough and wanted to wait awhile. Would it have been better for Compass to go on, in the meantime, distributing their non-vegan cookies while they were waiting for Hampton Creek? I don’t think so. Like Tetrick says, every day that less animal products are used, is good for the animals. Maybe we have to admire Hampton Creek here for daring to get their hands a bit “dirty” on a non-vegan product. This whole situation makes me think of the issue many vegans have when individuals chose to go vegan in steps rather than overnight. What if someone who went vegan overnight is actually someone who did nothing until they could be perfect (i.e., go vegan overnight) and thus missed their chance of doing good for the animals by reducing?

Some vegans state that they can’t understand that Hampton Creek, in the time that this non-vegan macadamia cookie has been on the market, has not been able to come up with a vegan white chocolate chip. But who are we to say that this should be Hampton Creek’s priority right now? The little bit of milk powder is such a detail relative to the bigger picture (and yes, dear vegan friends, I know how cows are treated for dairy), and maybe Hampton Creek is in the process of developing very interesting and more life-saving products and contracts that take up their attention.

Maybe Hampton Creek could have been more pro-active in its communication about this, and could have anticipated (and maybe prevented) this kind of backlash. They could have explained their reasoning from the get go, rather than keep quiet about the offending cookie and only getting in the conversation when the vegans found out. On the other hand, it has to be said that Hampton Creek and CEO Josh Tetrick have been quite responsive on social media.

Other than this, I have a lot more difficulty understanding the reactions of the offended vegans than I have understanding what Hampton Creek did. I can read several things in these reactions, which I go into a bit deeper here, as they – in my humble opinion – are revealing for the often quite unstrategic ways of thinking that is rampant in the vegan movement.

Black and white, all or nothing thinking
Hampton Creek has done a ton of good for animals. It was, in fact, founded with the idea to do exactly that. In the eyes of the offended vegans, however, the presence of a tiny bit of animal ingredient in one product (milk powder in the chocolate chips in one product among their whole range of products) seems to annihilate all Hampton Creek’s efforts and good deeds. I saw many commenters saying they were unfollowing the company and wouldn’t support them or buy their products anymore. Not 100% vegan, so no good, right? This all-or-nothing thinking gets us nowhere.

Distrust of corporations
One commenter says: “You’ll happily disregard your morals and ethics and exploit animals for a share of the market and financial gain (…). What an absolute shame.”
Among many vegans (and other activists for social issues) the default attitude towards companies and the corporate world seems to be one of distrust. One aspect of this is to always reduce companies’ and CEOs’ motivations and intentions to mere greed. First of all, a desire to make a profit doesn’t seem to be the main motivation of Tetrick and Hampton Creek. They very obviously have a social mission and are definitely not a profit-only company. Secondly, we need to take into account that a venture like Hampton Creek is beholden to its investors, and does need to make a profit – otherwise it simply wouldn’t exist in this system. Thirdly, when a company like Hampton Creek does good business, they will acquire more impact and influence to change things for the better for animals. In that sense, the fact that money is a driver for many people can be seen as a positive thing, at least when it’s combined with some ethical fiber – which Tetrick and HC certainly seem to have.

Mistaking an ally for an enemy
I see it happen again and again: a company or organization does a lot of good, but watch out when vegans don’t agree, on when the company slips up! While there are more than enough horrible companies in the world, we seem to reserve a disproportionate part of our anger for the ones that are actually our allies. What we may be witnessing here is the so-called “black sheep effect”, where members of a group can be more hostile and unforgiving towards other members of the in-group when they make a mistake, than to people not belonging to the group. Offending in-group members are then seen as traitors. A lot can probably be explained by the fact that our expectations of them (they were one of us!) weren’t met. It’s the same with ex-vegans.

Putting purity and rules over pragmatism and results
Every decision here,” Tetrick has responded on social media, “is based on this fundamental principle: what will increase the probability of maximizing good (including alleviating suffering) for the longest period of time.”
Our movement is often obsessed with veganism and vegan rules, at the cost of results. Yes, Hampton Creek technically is not a 100% vegan company. But what if this creates more good for the animals in the long run?

Ignoring the importance of institutional change
In an article on this subject on Ecorazzi, the author writes: “Ultimately, I do not care what they do. They are a company created to make products to fulfill consumer demand, whether vegan or non-vegan. What I care about is what we do, individually. We need to continue to educate – clearly and simply – so that we change how our friends, colleagues and family perceive animals.”
I’m presuming I don’t need to explain why institutional change – which Tetrick set out to generate – is crucial for our movement, and that we won’t get there by just convincing one individual at a time to go vegan. We need institutional partners: companies, NGOs, governments, schools, hospitals and many more. They can have an incredible impact on supply and demand and help change the playing field for everyone.

A holier-than-thou attitude
In the comments of many offended vegans, I seem to be able to read that non-vegans can never be right, while vegans can never be wrong. I get the impression that the people who are very very very vegan, sitting behind their computer, think that they are better, more pure, more praiseworthy than the company they are criticizing: a company that in a short period of time has done an amazing job in changing the food system. Incidentally, I’ve seen so many vegans lecturing Tetrick and HC about the issues related to dairy. Do we seriously think that Tetrick is not aware of these issues?

Hampton Creek is a great company, which is doing its best to create a better food system. It’s still a company in an imperfect world, run by imperfect people. So it will be imperfect. But it’s doing a ton of good. What if we would focus on the incredible amount of chicken misery that Hampton is preventing, rather than on the tiny amount of animal ingredients that is for the time being, and probably for good reasons, still in their products?

In other words: can we please get some perspective? When we’re no longer in the situation that 65 billion animals a year are being killed for food (excluding sea animals), then maybe we can get very worked up about the dairy in the chocolate cookie in a great product range of a great company. Until then, let’s focus on the big changes instead of the details. Let’s have some trust that some people really want to do the right thing, also in business. Let’s reserve our outrage for the really bad folks. And let’s follow our vegan rules as well as possible, but let’s be prepared to break them when it helps more animals.


My upcoming book How to Create a Vegan World: a Pragmatic Approach (June 2017, Lantern Press), contains a whole chapter on how the vegan movement can relate to the corporate world.

PS: if I got my facts wrong, somebody let me know!

When activists mean business. An interview with David Benzaquen

David Benzaquen

David BenzaquenMost of us who want to help animals usually end up doing some kind of advocacy or outreach, either individually or volunteering or working for a non-profit organization. However, as I have touched on in other posts and in this talk, we should not underestimate the importance of the for-profit sector: the companies producing and distributing the alternatives. Some of us in the movement have understood this well, and started their own production company (Josh Tetrick at Hampton Creek is a striking example). Other activists, like David Benzaquen, did something different. In 2012, David, who’s living in New York, started a consulting company called PlantBased solutions, which helps clients like Gardein, Miyoko’s Kitchen, or Ocean Hugger Foods, with marketing, branding, fundraising, and more.
I interviewed him…

Vegan Strategist: David, you weren’t always running a business. Why did you switch from a non-profit to a for-profit environment?
David Benzaquen: I originally worked in fundraising and advocacy for various animal protection groups, such as Farm Sanctuary. My motivation to start my business was to advance ethical, plant-based eating through new means. When I worked in the nonprofit world, I saw that most of our movement was using a limited set of tools to encourage positive behavior change. I greatly admire this work to educate people about the benefits of changing their diets, but I didn’t feel that replicating everyone else’s strategy was the most effective use of my time.

What helped you come to that realization?
My exploration of using business (and marketing, in particular) was motivated by two things. First, I was exposed to the field of Effective Altruism, where people attempt to measure the social impact of their choices and careers and make rational choices about where they can do the most good. Second, I attended a talk by a man named Jeff Dunn, who greatly inspired me. Mr. Dunn was once the CEO of Coca-Cola, but after having an epiphany that he could not continue promoting a harmful product he once called “sugar water and fairy dust”, he left the company. He then became CEO of Bolthouse Farms, and created something of a stir in the marketing world by branding carrots the same way we traditionally see done for junk foods like chips and soda. I was so inspired by how he used fun and engaging marketing to make carrots “cool” that I realized I wanted to do the same thing for vegan food!

How do you feel about the impact you’re generating today?
Most of the work that our movement is doing to advance plant-based/vegan living is through what we call a “push” method of marketing. That is, we show the consumer what’s wrong with the status quo and try to convince them to change their lifestyle accordingly. While some people may embrace change this way, most will be reticent to abandon what they’re used to and will feel overwhelmed by the threat our ideologies pose to their view of the world. In the work that we do now, rather than trying to convince someone that the world is bad or that they need to change who they are, we just show how delicious, beautiful, and healthy vegan products are and “pull”, or attract, the consumers to try them. Rather than pointing out the problems, we are offering the solutions and making them desirable and non-threatening. These approaches are incredibly impactful because many people who would otherwise shut down become open to incorporating more vegan products into their lives. They willingly overcome barriers and eliminate assumptions about how difficult or unpleasant living a compassionate lifestyle can be.

How’s business?
Business is amazing! I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I always used to think of business as a “4-letter word”. But regardless of what one thinks of how money and corporate power can be used for bad, the reality is every person needs to buy food and other items to survive. If we don’t engage in the marketplace of goods and work to make vegan products that can compete with the less ethical/sustainable/healthy animal versions, we will never succeed. And, the market is booming! When I started this company, nobody thought that vegan food could be big business. In the last few years, the richest people on earth, from Bill Gates and Li Ka-shing to Peter Thiel and Jerry Yang, have all invested in vegan food companies because they recognize that our reliance on animal protein is just not sustainable. We are honored to be working and growing with so many other compassionate business luminaries. As of the end of 2016, our company has worked with vegan businesses in nearly ten countries, and the list keeps growing as our movement spreads globally.

Can you tell us about some of the main challenges that companies are dealing with, and how a company like yours is able to help overcome those challenges?
The food business is an extraordinarily complex industry. First, operationally, one must grow or manufacture products in one place, process them, store them, and distribute them far and wide, often using strict temperature controls. These practices are very expensive and have high risks for failure (poor weather can lead to low crop yields, electricity challenges can lead to loss of cooling and spoilage, etc.). Second, because there are so many different foods and brands that can meet consumers’ desires to address their hunger or seek gustatory pleasure, companies must devote considerable resources to marketing and sales to ensure that their products break through the clutter and get onto consumers’ plates.
With PlantBased Solutions, we’re able to help companies in several key ways. First, because we are focused on the plant-based space and have worked with many of the world’s leading vegan brands, we know the competitive landscape for our clients better than anyone, and we are able to help market their products in a differentiated and effective way. Second, we have performed a significant amount of proprietary research on the consumers eating plant-based products, both the vegan/vegetarian community, and even more importantly, the flexitarians who are moving in that direction and whom we most need to influence. This allows us to plan our clients’ messaging, branding, and targeted marketing in the most effective way to motivate these consumers to find and buy the products.

To what extent does your animal rights background and motivation shine through when you help marketing products?
We are entirely committed to advancing plant-based products that align with our values, but we do not market them based on these values. We know that the vast majority of consumers buy food not based on mission, but based on taste, price, and convenience. Rather than trying to convince them to buy our clients’ brands for the reasons we would, we show them how tasty, affordable, and convenient (both to find and use) these products are.

Still, our work ethic and passion for our clients and their products obviously goes far beyond a marketing or consulting team that is motivated only by their paychecks. We believe that helping our clients sell lots of products means displacing a lot of harm in the world, from cruelty to animals and environmental destruction, to heart attacks and cancer. We are on a mission to help our clients succeed because we know that lives depend on it. We are proud to do this work, and this passion comes out in the time and devotion we give each client and in the thought and care we put in to what we do.

If companies are so important, what can individual activists do to help them succeed?
The most important thing you, as an individual activist, can do to help plant-based/vegan businesses succeed is to vote with your dollars and your forks! Every time you buy a plant-based product at a grocery store or order one of these items off a menu, you are directing money away from companies that do harm and towards those that will use the resources to build a more compassionate world. In addition, we are building a new compassionate economy from the ground up, and it takes a lot of people to support that infrastructure. No matter what your individual skills are, I can guarantee there are ways you can apply them to a career in vegan business.

More info:
Or listen to this podcast with David at the Plant-based entrepreneur




Vegan Islands versus Infiltrators

Many producers of meat alternatives dream of occupying a place among animal products in the supermarket. I mean, literally. They want to be sold where the meat products are sold, instead of in a separate vegan section. Apparently, judging by this picture, Beyond Meat managed to get this coveted position with their Beyond Burger.

Beyond Meat products in the meat section
Beyond Meat products in the meat section

Not every vegan may agree that the meat section is the best place for vegan products. Out of a personal preference, vegans may want the vegan products to have their own separate shelf, aisle or island.

I’m using the example of Beyond Meat’s product placement to illustrate the much broader idea of what I call Islands versus Infiltrators. A separate vegan section would be an example of an Island, while Beyond Meat’s burger patties in the meat section are Infiltrators. We can see many other examples – on similar and different levels – of this distinction:

  • vegan restaurants versus omnivore restaurants with vegan dishes
  • vegan shops versus general shops with vegan products
  • vegan cookbooks versus omnivore cookbooks with vegan recipes
  • vegan dating sites versus regular dating sites with the option to check “vegan”
  • vegan catering companies versus mixed catering companies
  • vegan cooking courses or a general course with vegan recipes

And there are many more examples  of exclusively vegan things. Vegan cruises, a vegan version of airbnb, vegan radio shows, vegan schools, etc.

You can ask yourself whether you are more pro-Island or pro-Infiltration. Let’s briefly look at some general advantages and disadvantages of both phenomena.

The advantage of Islands is clear. They are cosy and convenient for vegans. If we’re on a vegan cruise, we know we’ll get good vegan food, and everyone else on the cruise is vegan or at least veg-curious. Using a vegan cookbook, we are not confronted with pictures of recipes with dead animals in them (which, obviously, are also useless to us). Eating in a vegan restaurant, we know the chefs and waiters know what vegan is, and that there is no chance of anything “wrong” ending up in our food.

But the advantages of Infiltrators are just as clear. While Islands mainly benefit the vegans, Infiltrators are important for reaching new audiences and buyers. Infiltrators get much more exposure among omnivores, many of whom will never enter a vegan restaurant or specialty shop, and will never buy a vegan cookbook. They also will not go out of their way to find and stop by the vegan section in their supermarket.

When I asked on Facebook where the Beyond Beef (and other) products should be in the supermarket, many people answered they should be in both sections. Apart from this probably being difficult to realize (as far as I know, producers pay for shelf space), we also shouldn’t underestimate the impact of us going to the meat shelf and picking out a vegan product in front of other people. The best predictor that a beggar in the street will receive a gift from a passer-by is that the person walking ahead of them dropped something in their hat. The same applies here: the more people see other people picking up the vegan products, the more they might be more inclined to take a look, buy and taste them.

Maybe you’ve experienced how often omnivores seem to think that just because something is vegan, it is not for them (kind of like how ordinary vegans might be deterred from choosing a dish labeled “suitable for diabetics”). The problem today is still that vegan stuff is seen as stuff for vegans. So often, media articles, reviewing a new vegan restaurant, product or service, write something like: “Now, vegans can…” or “Now, there is x for vegans!”, as if it’s only vegans who can profit from it. We need to get rid of the idea that vegan is just for vegans. Infiltrators help counter this idea; Islands are often likely to confirm it.

If you are thinking of setting up some service or selling a product, you can consider whether you want to launch an Island or an Infiltrator. Chances are that as a vegan, you will feel much more comfortable with Island products and services, but the question is whether that is the most impactful.

But also as a consumer, you may consider what you want to spend most of your money on: the vegan restaurant or the vegan dish in the omnivore restaurant, for instance. Again, eating at the vegan restaurant is more convenient. But ordering the vegan dish in the omnivore restaurant signals that there is a demand, offers opportunities for conversation, for critiquing the dish so that the chef can improve it, etc. You also help keep the dish on the menu, increasing the chances that more people will be exposed to it.

That is, of course, not to say we should stop visiting vegan restaurants or other vegan businesses. On the contrary, they deserve our support. Moreover, Islands may have a symbolic function. They say, “Look, we can do it without animal products and still be viable”. They also may have media value: they may be covered by journalists, because they are new and exciting.

At least for the time being, we’ll have both Islands and Infiltrators. You choose where your money goes. I hope to have given you some arguments to use to think about your options more thoroughly.

Beyond Meat and Tyson: sleeping with the enemy?

The multinational meat company Tyson Foods is – at least to the vegan movement – a monster, slaughtering millions and millions of animals every year.
The startup Beyond Meat, on the other hand, is one of the vegan movement’s darlings, for taking meat alternatives to new levels.
How should the vegan movement respond when one invests in the other?

That’s what just happened: Tyson Foods bought a minority stake (5%) in Beyond Meat.

Judging by the comments on Beyond Meat’s Facebook page, and the company’s public response in a blog, many vegans are not amused.

Beyond meat logo

The accusations are unsurprising: Beyond Meat sold out. They’re only in it for the money. Buying a Beyond Meat product now means financially supporting the meat industry, etc. Therefore, (some) vegans will no longer buy Beyond Meat.

On the other hand, the announcement also got over 1600 likes.

So it seems the audience is torn. What to think?

I’ll take the example of Tyson and Beyond Meat to talk about a very basic distinction when we think about what’s good and what’s not good. It will be obvious for many among you, but is hopefully illuminating for many others.

Basically, one of the ways to explain the different opinions about what Beyond Meat did is in terms of a difference between focusing on values and focusing on consequences. When we look at many moral discussions and issues, this dichotomy is often at their basis.

Let’s investigate.

People who attach the most importance to values will say things like what you read above: that Beyond Meat sold out. That you just can’t deal or cooperate with a company like Tyson Foods because it is evil. That now Beyond Meat has been contaminated. They will point to all the bad things Tyson does, that their intentions are bad, and will say that being somehow implicit in further enriching them is plain immoral.

People who attach the most importance to consequences will look at what will happen as a result of this “collaboration”. They will keep in mind the bottom line (reducing animal suffering, abolishing the killing of animals, or something of this nature) and wonder if what happened will advance this bottom line. In other words, they will not ask whether Beyond Meat did an evil thing or not, but will wonder what good or bad will come out of it: will there be more or fewer animals killed (in the long or short term).

Put very bluntly, for the sake of making it clear, we could say that value-oriented people will say that if something is wrong, it’s wrong, irrespective of any positive consequences. Consequence-oriented people will say that something is okay if the consequences are mostly positive, no matter whether or not we can consider the actual action or deed immoral.

It’s usually not that simple or black and white though. Value-oriented people will almost always take consequences into account to at least some extent, and consequences-oriented people will not throw all values overboard. But it’s a matter of focus, or priority. Two other words for these two approaches would be principled versus pragmatic. In philosophical terms, these two positions are known as deontologist (from the Greek word for “duty”) versus consequentialist (or utilitarian).

Here’s another example that may make the distinction between values and consequences clearer. A skilled hunter may give a wild animal a quicker and more merciful death than when this same animal would die a long, cruel death from hunger. However, this hunter – assuming his first intention is not to reduce animal suffering – wants to have a quick thrill killing an innocent being. Now, if we would have the power to stop this from happening again, what do we do? Do we stop the hunter because we think it’s wrong, even if that would be much less painful for the animal (let’s assume the animal will die in a few days or weeks through lack of food). Or do we say that, exactly because of these consequences, and in spite of the hunter’s intentions, this whole action turns out to be okay and we should support it?

It’s complicated, as you can see, and this discussion has being going on for ages in moral philosophy. It’s what the famous trolley problem is about, and it’s also what my experiment about eating meat for money is about.

(One way to think about this is to put yourself, in this case, in the position of the animal. Would you want people to care more about the consequences, which are directly affecting you? Or about the principles? My view here is that as the animal, I wouldn’t care about what’s right or wrong for humans to do. I would care about my suffering or not suffering.)

If you focus on values, and you have your values clear, then you can often use quick judgments to state whether to you personally something is okay or not okay. But if you judge by consequences, you need to investigate those consequences, and these are not always clear, and you usually have more “work” to do than a values-oriented person.

Let’s go back to Beyond Meat and Tyson Foods. I usually find myself attaching more importance to consequences. Reducing animal suffering to me is what counts, and I’m usually in favor of everything that contributes to that. So, apart from wondering if an investment of Tyson Foods in Beyond Meat is an evil thing in itself, so to speak, we could wonder: what would the concrete, actual consequences for the animals be? More generally, can it ever be a good thing when meat companies invest in plant-based products? Here are some possible consequences to take into account when assessing this case.

If a meat company butters their bread on two sides, or bets on multiple horses (to say it with two “non-vegan” expressions), and is able to profit from the growth of vegan products, we can assume it will become less resistant to this evolution. The lobby for meat is powerful, but as the industry’s financial dependence on selling animal products decreases while its profits from selling vegan products increases, we can expect a shift in their antagonism towards the growth of vegan consumption.

We could wonder – as many vegans do – what happens with the profits the meat company makes from the vegan products? If we are values-oriented, we could say that this is wrong and disgusting in any case: this money is being used to enrich the exploiters. If we are consequences-oriented, we wouldn’t really mind about that in itself, though we might wonder whether these profits might be used to bolster the company’s meat department. In that case, we’d have a negative consequence. This seems unlikely though. I have a hard time seeing a reason why a company would structurally invest the profits from plant-based products to market their animal-based products – unless of course there’s much more money to be made with the latter. But it’s exactly because plant-based is on the rise and animal-based is (very slowly) on the way down in Western countries, that companies like Tyson are starting to invest in plant-based.

Another argument is that these huge companies like Tyson have a big advertising budget. They are able to put veg products really out there: on TV, in supermarkets, etc. Their reach is much bigger than that of the smaller, idealistic companies (though we cannot but be amazed at the attention Hampton Creek has gotten with virtually no advertising budget!).

If Tyson gets really interested, they could also start using part of their resources for research and development of vegan products.

As CEO Ethan Brown says in his blog post, this financial stake of Tyson in Beyond Meat also creates opportunities for the two companies to work together, and to have an influence on Tyson. This may sound naive, but consider the alternative: usually isolating someone or something doesn’t really do anything in terms of influencing them in the right direction. The only thing isolating someone allows you to do is to keep your hands clean. If you are concerned about keeping your hands clean at all costs, you’re very much values-oriented.

You’re also focusing on values when you say that Tyson is only doing this for profit. This is something that you might find morally problematic. However, no matter what Tyson’s intentions are here (and undoubtedly it’s about profit), the consequences could still be positive. In any case, money is one of the main motivations for people to do anything. I think it’s more useful for us to try to make use of and exploit this motivation than to condemn and boycott it.

Whether you focus more on values or more on results, Tyson is not just going to disappear, or stop doing what they do overnight. Rather, Tyson needs to evolve into something else. That is a much more realistic option. And as much as we dislike what it’s doing now, and as much as we may dislike big companies, capitalism, commercialism, consumerism, and so on, I think the best way is to “allow” Tyson to evolve, and to take steps like it just did. Likewise, I think it’s good if we “allow” Beyond Meat to get their hands dirty and get in bed with what is, until further notice, still the enemy.




“I don’t need meat alternatives”

My fellow vegans now and then say things that I’m critical of, and this one is pretty high up in that list: “I don’t need meat alternatives. I think it’s kinda disgusting, the way those products resemble meat. Give me beans everyday!” (or something like that).


Sure, I get it, your tastes are different. I also get that you are over the desire for anything that looks or tastes like meat. Maybe you want to show how totally you don’t want to have anything to do with animal products at all, so much so that you don’t want to be around anything that resembles them.

But here’s the thing, dear meat alternative-hating vegan: it’s not about you. You are already part of team vegan. You don’t need any convincing anymore. You’ve said bye-bye to animal products (hopefully forever), and that’s just great.

So who is it about, if not you? It’s about the 99% we still have to get to jump on the vegan wagon, of course. We need to do whatever appeals to them. This is, once more, about putting yourself in your audience’s shoes and trying to imagine what they want to eat, what they want to hear, etc.

Most people like (love!) to eat animal products. But I’m sure most of them wouldn’t insist that these products come from a (dead) animal. If we can make meat, dairy, egg… alternatives look and taste exactly the same as the original & cruel thing (and can make them not more expensive, at least as healthy, more sustainable, etc), then we can potentially convince a lot of people.

So people will like products that remind them of the products they like. It’s that simple.

Well, it’s not, of course. I know there are also concerns like “imitations, meh”, and “why do those vegans want to eat stuff that tastes like meat if they don’t want to eat meat”. I would suggest not to take such arguments too seriously.

Bottom line: alternatives for animal products are awesome. If you can get by on rice and beans (or even just raw food), that’s wonderful, but don’t confuse yourself with the people we still need to reach.




Let them eat labmeat – an interview with professor Cor Van Der Weele

I believe that labmeat (also called cultured meat or in vitro meat) is one of the current developments that holds the biggest promises for animals. Professor Cor Van Der Weele, at the Wageningen University in the Netherlands – a country at the forefront of these developments – has been researching the topic for years. She has a degree in both biology and philosophy. I asked her some questions about labmeat, and presented her with some of the objections part of the vegan community may have…

foto: annemieke van der togt
foto: annemieke van der togt

VS: One thing I often hear is that we already have so many vegetarian/vegan options available (from tofu to really good veggieburgers). So why do we need labmeat?
Cor Van Der Weele: In spite of all those good options, for some reason most people remain attached to meat. Cultured meat, or lab meat, is primarily meant for them.

I can see that. But suppose we have a plant-based vegan product that is indistinguishable from real meat, and that has the same or better nutritional value, price, texture, etc. Why would some people be more convinced by lab meat? And how big do you think that segment is?
That would in fact be a very interesting experiment. The fascinating thing about the existence of various alternatives is that they help to unravel the complicated mix of motives people can have to eat meat – such as taste, price, habit, health, and various other considerations about eating animals. Maybe for some dedicated meat eaters, cultured meat would be closer to “the real thing.” I suspect that the size of that segment would be different in different countries. It would also depend on framing and marketing, and it would probably grow smaller over time.

Should we call labmeat just meat? Is it meat? What makes “meat” “meat” for the average consumer?
I don’t think it should be called just “meat.” Cultured meat would be meat in that it is made up of animal cells, but it would obviously also be very different from ordinary meat in some crucial ways. Studies show again and again that many meat eaters are ambivalent about (real) meat. One form that this ambivalence takes is that people like to eat meat but at the same time dislike factory farming and/or the idea that animals need to be killed for meat. The development of cultured meat implies that we accept that people like meat, while we hope to produce it without doing harm to animals. Because there are these differences between meat and cultured meat that many consumers find morally important, they should be able to make the distinction.
Cultured meat can be seen as a step away from ordinary meat: too small a step for some, too large a step for others, but in all cases a step that puts conventional meat in a new light.

Do you believe that, as some critics say, labmeat will alienate us even more from our food and from nature? If yes, in what way is that a concern?
Making cultured meat is “unnatural,” but then, how natural is factory farming? I think that the way we deal with animals in factory farming is very alienating, and that cultured meat, produced from a harmless biopsy taken from animals that have had good lives, would be a big improvement. Further, cultured meat needs far less land. It therefore potentially creates more space for re-naturing the world.

You write about “strategic ignorance”: the attitude of people to willfully not know something or be misinformed about something, because the truth is too hard to bear. The way I see it, one part of the fear (apart from the confrontation with suffering and killing) is the fear that people would miss out on a lot of great food if they really opened themselves up to knowing about animal suffering. Would you agree that developing alternatives like labmeat would be able to partially break down this strategic ignorance?
Yes, certainly. What we saw in focus groups is that the idea of cultured meat made meat eaters discuss what they did not like about meat. The very idea of cultured meat triggers a new feeling of moral room and moral options.

Another argument against labmeat seems to be that it could impede moral change, because of the promise that technology will solve our problems.
I understand the idea; it would make us wait and see. And in part, that is what many people are already doing: they are ambivalent about meat, which may make them perhaps slowly more open to alternatives, but they are no pioneers. I don’t claim to really understand social change but I do know that it is hardly following straight lines. For example, all these ambivalent people who are meat lovers when you look at their behavior but who are not very positive about meat below the surface, what will they do when a really attractive alternative turns up? In this complex field, cultured meat can have an influence as an idea, as a definite product in itself, or as a temporary option on the way from meat to plant-based substitutes.

Part of the vegan community may fear that labmeat won’t change the way we view animals; that it won’t teach us that animals are not ours to use.
I disagree, that’s exactly what cultured meat will do. I think it effectively undermines the self-evidence of how we deal with animals, and I am convinced that it will make a difference, whether or not we are looking for it. It’s important to realize that change does not necessarily need to start with clear moral attitudes. In some cases, people adopt attitudes that accompany the behavior that they are already demonstrating. In this case, this might mean that when people get used to eating cultured meat, the idea of factory farming or killing animals may gradually become stranger and less acceptable.


A yummy veggieburger or a dreadful vegan burger?

For those who dig them, here’s another thought experiment (you know I love those).

Suppose you’re out and about with an omnivorous friend. He’s very hungry and he wants to humor you and try something veg. The only restaurant in the area has two things on offer: a delicious vegetarian burger (you know it contains a bit of egg or cheese) and a very dry and tasteless vegan burger. Which one do you recommend he order? (Or a bit more difficult: Which one would you buy for him?)

veggie vs vegan

In an ideal world, of course, there’s great tasting vegan burgers everywhere, but going along with this thought experiment may help you discover or make explicit something about your values. I’m sure we agree that the vegan burger is in theory the more ethical choice. But does it follow that it is necessarily the best choice?

The experiences omnivores have with vegan food will have a very big impact on their thinking about vegan and animal rights issues. Those who have had only Bad Tofu Experiences will likely be much less open to going vegan, while those who know the joys of vegan dishes may realize that once they quit their omnivorous diet, they will have great alternatives.

So in this context, of course, it does not seem to be a good idea to suggest a bad product to a person, even though it’s vegan. A yummy experience with the veggie burger (which will look pretty plant-based to your friend anyway) will do much more to open his mind.

I remember speaking at a (non-animal rights related) seminar that took place in a hotel. I had eaten there the night before and I knew the vegan food was quite bad. But after the talk I gave on the problems of eating meat, the organizers asked the audience who would want to switch to a vegetarian meal that night. Almost everybody raised their hand, and I thought: “Noooooo! Not here!”

Take away one: Helping people have great vegan taste experiences is absolutely crucial. If we can’t serve them good vegan food, it might actually be better to let them eat a hamburger.

Take away two: Don’t think just about short-term impact, but also about the long term.


What about GMOs and hi-tech animal food alternatives?

We’re living in very exciting times.

We’re on the verge of making milk without the cow,
cheese without the milk,
eggs without the chickens,
burgers without the beef,
leather without the bull…

In a lot of cases we’re not talking about imitations but about actually replicating, molecule by molecule, the original product (eggs, milk, cheese, meat…), so that our “alternative” can hardly be called an alternative any longer, but is a product that is chemically (more or less) identical to the original animal product.

hi tech animal products (1)

Obviously, doing stuff like this requires new technologies (like genetic modification) and hi-tech food development environments (labs, say). This is of course a far cry from the local, natural, organic, DIY food movement that is presently quite popular.

The vegan movement too is a bit divided over this. A big part believes our food should be as “natural” as possible, while another part doesn’t mind the involvement of high tech, including GMO’s, to make things better.

To me it’s quite obvious that the label “natural” doesn’t mean much. To simplify things – as is often done in the food movement in general – to something like: natural is good, processed/engineered is bad, seems quite irrational. I find there is little reason to entertain the general idea that what has been produced by nature is necessarily better than what humans make of it. There seems to be no reason why humans, in theory, could not do better than nature. Sure, when we try to improve on what nature provided us with, we need to experiment, sometimes by trial and error, and we have made mistakes and will make more. But that doesn’t mean we can’t ever get it right.

I’m aware of the potential political and social problems in giving food companies too much power, the problem of monopolies, of only big companies being able to develop certain technologies, of patenting, etcetera… But while these issues are very important, they are practical issues that are not inherent to the “naturalness” or “unnaturalness” of foods. It seems sensible, especially in the case of GMO’s, to separate two questions: do you have fundamental problems with something, versus do you have practical problems with something. If you fundamentally disagree with something (e.g. you believe that genetic modification is “unnatural” and therefore “wrong”) there’s no real solution for you in sight. If you disagree with e.g. genetic modification on the grounds that it creates too much power for certain (obviously capitalist) multinationals, that’s a practical issue of a totally different nature.

While we shouldn’t be naive, these practical issues can in theory be solved. A nice example of a high tech initiative that seems to be doing things differently is Real Vegan Cheese, which is a group of “biohackers” (a word which does a great job in showing the “unnaturalness” of their endeavours) trying to develop… well, real vegan cheese. They are crowdfunded and work out of two open community labs in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Personally, while I can see many potential or real practical issues with hi-tech food development, I don’t have any fundamental objections against hi-tech food. I basically support science and technology in reinventing animal products and coming up with alternatives, so that we can make of animal use a thing of the past.