Seven possible responses of meat and dairy companies to vegan growth

Ben & Jerry's vegan flavors

Vegan products are quickly gaining in popularity. The biggest driver of this growth comes not from the vegans, but from people who like to buy and taste plant-based products now and then, for whatever reason (health, animals, environment, variety… or just because they’re there and they taste good). Companies that are producing meat and dairy products and are not offering vegan products can respond to the growth of the vegan market (and possibly the decline of the meat and dairy market) in several ways. Below, I briefly go over these different types of responses, starting with conservative and defensive ones, and moving to more progressive and radical ones.

1. ignore the whole thing

There are still quite a few companies – though less and less of them – that believe the vegan trend is just a hype, which will blow by. Others do realize that the growth of meat and dairy may be permanently stagnating and may decline further in the western world, but hope to profit from growing demand for their products in developing countries. Indeed, as pro capita income in China, India and other countries in Asia as well as Latin America is increasing, demand for animal products, according to the business as usual scenario, is expected to rise dramatically (indeed to double by 2050). Meat and dairy companies hope to cater to this growing international demand. These opportunities for export, however, are not a given. Awareness of the issues is growing in these countries, and new technology like clean meat may throw a wrench in the machine. Also, in the future many of these countries will probably cater more and more to their own needs and acquire the necessary expertise, rather than importing meat and dairy products from the west.

2. try to slow it down or stop it

Some companies are proactively fighting or trying to sabotage the growing interest in plant-based foods or, for that matter, the growing awareness around animal welfare and animal rights issues. One obvious example is how the meat and dairy industry in Europe and the US have been lobbying to ban the use of meat- and dairy-style names (words like “hamburger” or “cheese”) for plant based products. In Europe, this lobbying has actually been successful and led tot he fact that soymilk or oatmilk can no longer be called “milk” but should carry other names (like “drink”). In France the same already goes for meat products, so a vegetarian or vegan hamburger can no longer be called that. In the US, similar initiatives have so far been unsuccessful, but on the other hand we have seen so called “ag-gag” laws (agriculture gagging) in many states. These laws prohibit things like taking pictures of factory farms, in an attempt to limit animal activists from making undercover footage. Similar repressive measures have been taken in particular in Austria.

3. “traditional innovation”

To keep selling enough products, many companies need to constantly innovate. “Traditional innovation” – the term is sort of an intentional oxymoron – is what I mean with meat and dairy companies creating innovative products that still involve animal products. An example of this is lactose free milk – a dairy product which the dairy sector wants to sell to those who are lactose intolerant – or milk with certain flavors.
Much more innovative – I’m still placing it here but it could also be under the next point – are hybrid products (see my interview with Jos Hugense of Meatless). These products are made up of both animal and plant products. Imagine “milk” that is partly cow’s milk and partly oat milk, or a sausage that is 70 percent meat and 30 percent wheat – both product categories that actually exist.

4. developping alternatives for meat and dairy products

More and more companies are taking an even bolder step, and are launching animal free alternatives of the animal products that they are already offering. Both the Ben and Jerry’s and Haagen Dazs icecream brands, for instance, have launched vegan flavors. In Germany the long standing meat company Ruggenwalder Muhle has launched many vegetarian or vegan products.

Ben & Jerry's vegan flavors
Ben & Jerry’s vegan flavors

5. venture investments in plant-based companies

Some companies are hedging against or preparing for the decline of demand for animal products by investing in other companies that produce alternatives. Tyson Food‘s venture fund has famously bought a  stake in the vegan company Beyond Meat and has also invested in startups trying to bring clean meat to market. General Mills has invested in Kite Hill (which offers plant based cheeses), as well as in Beyond Meat. And both Cargill and Tysyon foods have invested in Memphis Meat, a Californian start up trying to bring clean meat to market, and having already produced prototypes of clean meatballs and clean duck.

6 . acquiring a plant-based company

Meat and dairy companies also have to option of not just buying a stake in a plant-based company, but completely acquiring it. This can be a good idea when the meat or dairy company doesn’t have the expertise or the ambition to bring their own alternative products to market quickly enough. French dairy giant Danone bought Whitewave foods, which owns brands like Silk, Alpro (a European nondairy company), as well as some organic dairy brands. Danone paid upwards of 11 billion dollars for the acquisition, but it allows the company to make an entrance into the US market – where it was weak – as well as in the plant-based and organic market. There are many other examples of similar acquisitions, like Finish dairy company Valio acquiring Swedish oatmilk company Oddlygood, Canadian Saputo acquiring Morningstar, etc. Famous vegan cheesemaker Daiya was acquired by the Japanese company Otsuka.

For vegans who dislike that meat companies are getting involved in vegan companies, it’s important to be aware of the fact that through their venture investments or acquisitions, the investing or new parent company can support the further growth of the vegan company. Apart from cash for further product development or advertising budgets, an investing or parent company can also provide their expertise in research and development to make a product better. An Alpro exectutive for instance, talked about how their new parent company Danone’s expertise in fermenting would be very useful to further improve the quality of Alpro’s yoghurts. Other assets that a parent company can provide are all their contracts with supermarket (or maybe even restaurant) chains to help improve the distribution of these products. Also important to note is that very probably, a meat or dairy company will be much less likely to try to sabotage vegan growth (option two above) if they are already profiting from it.

7. completely transforming into a plant-based company

Finally, a meat or dairy company can transition into a vegan company. This is at this point a very rare phenomenon, but it does happen, and one can only hope it will happen more and more. An example is the traditional New York dairy company Elmhurst, which is now a plant-based company. It continues to sell milk, but switched from cows to nuts for their sourcing.

If we want the vegan lifestyle to spread further, it is necessary that traditional companies can jump on board somehow, and that they have a wider variety of options than just go bankrupt or to turn vegan overnight – both of which are very rare occurences.

Do you see any responses that I missed? Let me know.

The vegan burger that isn’t vegan

impossible burger

The Luna Grill, a restaurant in San Diego, is serving the vegan Beyond Burger (yeay!). Only, they serve it with feta cheese, on a non vegan bun.

impossible burger

At first sight, this is seems a bit of an absurdity, and one can easily understand tweeter Vanilla Bean’s frustration here:

twitter quote about vegan being frustratedApparently, at least some meat eaters share this idea: “Nonsensical as vegan replacements might seem to some, refusing to serve them in a vegan-friendly way is irrefutably more so” – writes The Independent.

These reactions make some sense. And yet, I think both vegan Vanilla Bean, and The Independent’s meat-eating (we assume) journalist are revealing that they are starting out from the erroneous idea that vegan products are only for vegans.

Of course, vegans love vegan products, and they will eat them and rave about them on social media and be their prime customers (at least if there’s no problematic mother company involved – see Why vegans shouldn’t boycott Daiya cheese). But, it’s actually not they in the first place who need vegan products. Nor are they the main customer segment, or the main people to be reached. Companies like Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, or Hampton Creek – all of them largely mission driven enterprises –  understand this. They want the non-vegans to turn to vegan products and have them eat more and more of them. If you can get non-vegans to eat your products, you have more impact and a bigger customer potential at the same time. Two vegan sausages with one stone, as they say.

Of course, this Luna Grill restaurant could (probably) easily be more sympathetic to vegan requests and make their burger without that damn feta, and on a vegan bun (although I don’t encourage people to get too nervous about microingredients out of the house – heresy, I know). I do hope Luna Grill and all other non-vegan restaurants will be more forthcoming in the future, and I hope we will see more and more vegans requesting vegan products, so that there’s more and more menu options that are entirely vegan, and by default. Luna Grill here may offer shitty service to vegans, and may not be worth visiting. But that isn’t the point here.

If we want non-vegans to taste, eat, buy… vegan products, and if we want these products to spread widely, we shouldn’t get nervous about them turning up in non-vegan dishes. Indeed, ever more frequently, we find vegan products, like Daiya cheese or Just Mayo, in non-vegan dishes – for allergy, price, or other reasons – and indeed, it would be our loss if that weren’t the case. It’s probably not all that different for meat substitutes. If we want these products to be appreciated as products in their own right, they will need to be integrated by enthusiastic non-vegans in non-vegan meals.

The good thing is, of course, that eating these products, whenever they are encountered, helps people shift more and more in the right direction along the plant-based spectrum. And, in and of themselves, vegan patties obviously represent animals being spared, whether or not the patties are served on a vegan bun.

Thus, we should welcome vegan products in non-vegan dishes, just as we should applaud non-vegans eating vegan products. It’s the fastest way forward to a vegan world.

Is clean meat the animals’ best hope? An interview with Paul Shapiro 

paul shapiroI have known Paul Shapiro since he ran Compassion Over Killing in Washington DC, together with his wonderful three legged dog, George. From that position, Paul went on to be a Humane Society of the United States spokesperson and vice president for thirteen years. Just this month (Jan. 2018), Paul came out with his first book: Clean Meat. How Growing Meat without Animals will Revolutionize Dinner and the World. In it, Paul chronicles some of the key people, companies, and technologies behind clean meat, or the idea of creating animal products directly from animal cells, without live animals. Paul provides the reader with a fascinating inside view of the startups that have been popping up in our social media feeds in the last few years: companies like Memphis Meats, Hampton Creek, Modern Meadow, Clara Foods, Mosa Meats, Geltor, or Perfect Day, who are all hurrying to bring products to market that might just mean the beginning of the end of animal consumption.
I talked with Paul about his hopes for clean meat, and asked for his answers to some common objections to the idea of eating meat without animals.

Vegan Strategist: Paul, your book got me even more excited about the possibilities of clean meat (not to say clean milk and clean eggs). First of all: what are you most excited about?
Paul Shapiro: I’m excited about it all, but, in all honesty, what would excite me the most would be a greater focus (in both plant-based meats and clean meats) on poultry and fish. The success of alternative milks and burgers is stellar, but even 100% displacement of those categories would affect less than 1% of farmed animals in the US. Statistically speaking, virtually all farmed animals are birds and fishes, so we need more replacement products for them. Fortunately, many of these startups are working on clean chicken, while Finless Foods is developing clean fish, too.

What in your opinion is the most critical factor for clean meat to succeed?
Not enough people buying this book! Just kidding. Seriously, there are key hurdles, from consumer acceptance to government regulation to technological barriers that could hinder the success of these start-ups. That said, every one of these companies is optimistic about overcoming such hurdles, and I outline why they feel that way in the book.

One of these technological barriers is the serum that is used to make the animal cells grow. Traditionally, this has been bovine serum. How are the alternatives coming along?
What we call acellular ag companies (those making milk, egg whites, leather, and gelatin) don’t need any bovine serum (or any other animal ingredients) at all. But the meat companies still use bovine serum for some meats, though not for others. They all know they can’t commercialize their products with that serum, both for financial and ethical reasons. The good news is that they’ve found non-animal alternatives to bovine serum that work (in fact, Memphis Meats’ Nick Genovese even published his serum-free recipe already), but the key is to find the most economical alternatives that will still cause the cells to grow into muscle quickly.

Assuming we can get past the technological hurdles: how easy or hard will it be to get governmental approval to bring these products to market?
That depends on the country and on the product. The path for the acellular ag companies seems a bit clearer, since there are already similar products on the market now. For instance, the rennet in nearly all hard cheeses sold in the US is produced through the same kind of synthetic biology which companies like Perfect Day, Geltor, and Clara Foods are using.

There are some really smart people, like Pat Brown of Impossible Foods, who still think clean meat is an unfeasible and stupid idea. The organization Givewell, as late as 2015, was not recommending investing in or donating to clean meat. Could they be right?
Sure, they could be right. I, of course, hope they’re not, and I also look at what experts in the meat industry think. Cargill has already invested in Memphis Meats. A major German poultry company just invested in SuperMeat. I presume they know what they’re doing. But there’s nothing inevitable or self-executing about the success of clean meat.

Some people – vegans especially – will say that we already have enough plant-based alternatives, which are getting better and better, and that we don’t have any need for clean meat.
If plant-based meats explode in popularity and make clean meat unnecessary, all of the clean meat companies will be thrilled, as would I. I love plant-based meats and tout them all the time. But many people profess to be wedded to actual animal meat. For them, clean meat could be a solution.
The problem of factory farming is just so severe that you want multiple solutions. Just as with the problem of fossil fuels, you don’t want just one alternative, like wind. You also want solar, geothermal, and more. Similarly, plant-based meats are a great solution to the factory farming problem, but you also want other alternatives, including clean meat, and, of course, whole foods plant-based diets, too.

clean meat book

There seems to be a big food trend in the direction of more authentic, more simple, more artisanal food. That doesn’t seem very compatible with clean meat, at first sight.
The key isn’t to get people who like “natural foods” to eat clean meat; it’s to get mainstream meat-eaters (which is nearly everyone) to eat it. And really, the current way we produce meat is so unnatural that growing it seems like a naturally preferable option. I might also point out how technology has helped us on a lot of other food sustainability issues. Take vanilla as one example: only about 1% of vanilla that we eat is “natural” vanilla, which is grown in rainforests. The rest is produced synthetically, allowing us to have the same vanilla taste and scent we crave for much lower costs.

What would you tell vegans who are critical of clean meat?
Well, clean meat is meant, in the first place, for mainstream meat-eaters, meaning nearly everyone. Some vegans will be fine eating it, but the surveys show that the less meat you eat now, the less interest you have in eating clean meat.
No one argues that clean meat is a panacea or that it addresses every single concern about meat. It is quite plausible though that it may spare billions of animals from torture and slaughter. All that said, sometimes as vegans we delude ourselves into thinking that the foods we eat don’t cause any animal suffering. For those who think that, I’d recommend becoming more familiar with commercial agriculture practices, including for the plant-based foods we vegans love.

It seems that in the evolution towards a better world for animals, business and entrepreneurship are getting more and more important compared to activism/advocacy. What’s your take on that?
I totally agree, and recommend this good essay by my friend Seth Goldman, executive chairman of Beyond Meat, on the topic. This is a big reason I wrote the book and am now moving away from conventional animal advocacy and toward food tech as a way to help animals. The animal advocacy movement can do a lot of good, yet I’ve increasingly come to the view that food technology is desperately needed to greatly accelerate the shift away from the factory farming of animals. Horses weren’t liberated from labor by humane sentiment; Henry Ford liberated them. Whales weren’t freed from harpoons by humane sentiment; kerosene helped render whale oil obsolete. Will clean meat and plant-based meats help do the same for farm animals? These questions are the driving factors for me to move my career more into the food tech space.

And you’re not the only one. The stories of the “business activists” in your book are fascinating and inspiring.
Yes. And it’s helpful to recall that these people are just people. They’re mere mortals like the rest of us. Many of them are young idealists who haven’t come to believe yet that they can’t change the world. And, as the saying goes, those who complain that they can’t change the world should get out of the way of those who are doing it.

How do you feel about big meat companies getting involved in this?
The faster meat companies become the purveyors of plant-based meats and clean meats, the faster animals will win. Fortunately, it’s already starting to happen.

What would you say to people who bring up anti-capitalist arguments?
I hear that argument and respect those who make it. But if animals must wait until the end of capitalism to be freed from factory farms, they’re going to be waiting a long time.

Apparently Hampton Creek’s foie gras might be the first product to reach the market?
Totally possible. It would be quite a story: the only foie gras that can be legally sold in California. It’d be quack-tastic!

What can your average vegan or vegan advocate do in this story? How can they help?
It’s a small but growing field! If you want to pursue a career in cellular ag, this page may be useful. If you’ve got an idea for a company and want advice about getting started, the Good Food Institute is the place to go. (It’s actually a great place to go for much more than that, too.) And, if you just want to be supportive, of course, touting the benefits of cellular ag and the start-ups profiled in the book on social media would helpful, too. They could use the support!

To learn more about Paul’s fascinating book, go to www.cleanmeat.com. To know more about Paul, visit www.paul-shapiro.com

Should vegans support the McDonald’s vegan burger?

mcvegan

I remember, more than fifteen years ago, asking vegetarians and vegans what they would do if ever McDonald’s came up with a vegan burger. Imagine furthermore, I said, that they are testing it somewhere and that the success of the test will determine if they will roll it out everywhere.

Sometimes, thought-experiments (I’ve always loved them) become real. This week, McDonald introduced a vegan burger in Tampere, Finland. The success it will have until November may influence what will happen in thousands of other McDonald’s around the globe.

Vegans, as often, are a bit divided in their reactions. Many applaud this initiative, while many others state that they will never ever eat anything at McDonald’s, because one vegan burger cannot erase the many problematic aspects of the company.

I’m seeing a lot of gut-level, unexamined opinions on this topic. So, allow me to present you with some of my thoughts on this issue.

mcvegan

What’s wrong with McDonald’s?
McDonald’s has been and in many aspects remains a problematic company. Actually, in many people’s eyes (at least activists and people on the left in general), McDonald’s is more or less the prototype of a Bad Company. When I type “what’s wrong with” in Google, the first autocomplete suggestion I see is… McDonald’s. The 1986 pamphlet What’s Wrong With McDonald’s – and the “McLibel” lawsuit by the corporation against Helen Steel and Dave Morris – probably has something to do with this. The pamphlet spoke about animal welfare, workers’ rights, deforestation, luring children with toys, etc. And for many people, even if all of these problems were solved, McDonald’s would still simply be too big, too capitalist, too uniform and too many other things to support.

I don’t have the time to do a thorough check of how McDonald’s is doing today in terms of all these different social dimensions, but let’s just very briefly look at one aspect: is McDonald’s any worse in the animal welfare department than similar companies? According to Paul Shapiro, Vice President of policy engagement at the Humane Society of the US, the company’s 2012 announcement that the US branch would require its suppliers to phase out gestation crates and its 2015 similar announcement on battery cages both led to a cascade of other major retailers doing the same or better. In a real way, Shapiro says, the company’s announcements helped put the writing on the wall that these cage confinement practices will have no place in the future. Sure, all these are “mere” welfare reforms, but they are a start, and they mean tangible differences for literally billions of animals.

I think a lot of the hate McDonald’s gets is not always entirely rational, and is in part due to the fact that McD has come to symbolize all that is bad about modern day capitalism. But let’s, for argument’s sake, just accept that the fast food giant is still a very bad company – it definitely buys, cooks and serves a humongous number of animals. What does this mean in terms of vegans and the vegan movement’s relationship to the vegan burger?

The naysayers
I found many people claiming on social media that they will never support McDonald’s. They refuse to spend money on such a company and, thus, (in their view), contribute to all the evil it is doing. An often heard response to this kind of argument is that these very same people probably spend quite some money in other businesses (e.g.) supermarkets, which also sell animal parts and may also cause other kinds of damage. Again, singling out McDonald’s (and other big fast food chains) seems to me not a rational attitude, but may have a lot to do with the symbolic function that McDonald’s has.

Sometimes, it seems to me that it is part of human nature to want or need enemies: many of us just love to hate some people and companies. For this reason, some of us may not like it when the enemy improves. People don’t want to lose their enemy and seem to require an outlet for a certain amount of hate and anger. An indication of this is that there is hardly anything this enemy can do in order to get the support of the naysayers (people may, for instance, not even support McDonald’s if it’s 100% vegan and green and… ). Some of the McVegan’s opponents have been asking whether the mustard, the sauce, the buns are vegan and whether the patty will be fried on the same grill as the beef patties are fried on – seemingly looking for any excuse not to support it. Others say it’s just junk.
Every positive action that is undertaken will be considered insignificant, or greenwashing, or empty, or whatever. The idea that the company is evil to its core becomes sort of non-falsifiable.

Some people in the no camp consider the enthusiasm of the yes camp as some sort of “veganism über alles” attitude. They see the McVegan’s proponents as applauding anything that advances the vegan or animal cause, even if it is at the cost of anything else. Certainly, there are vegans who are very narrowly focused on animals alone and don’t care for intersecting social justice issues. But I don’t think that is necessarily the case for everyone saying yes to the McVegan. These people may just be willing to encourage every significant step, realizing that not everything will be done at once. If McDonald’s takes significant measures in other areas, these could also be applauded, even though the company is still responsible for a lot of animal suffering.

The case for a McVegan
I have written before on the power that big companies have to do good things (see Beyond Meat and Tyson: sleeping with the enemy? and Why vegans shouldn’t boycot Daiya cheese). It’s easy to see some of the advantages of having a vegan burger at McD’s. Such an offer would help tremendously in normalizing and mainstreaming vegan food and would lower the threshold for a lot of people to actually try it out (the burger has to be tasty, of course – but according to what I read, it is). Companies who have a stake in selling plant-based foods also will start to become less antagonistic to the growth of the vegan phenomenon.

But most importantly, big companies have the power, the resources, the contacts and the channels to get these products out everywhere. I just came back from the Extinction and Livestock Conference in London, organized by Compassion in World Farming and WWF. During one of the panels, Josh Balk, Vice President for The Humane Society of the United States’ farm animal division, reminded us of the days when soy milk could only be found in an obscure corner of the local health food store. What happened, asked Josh, that pulled plant-based milks out of that corner and put them on the shelves of every major supermarket in the United States? His answer: Dean Foods happened.The largest dairy company in the US saw an opportunity and got into plant-based milks. There might be other explanations for these products’ growing popularity, but Big Dairy definitely played a big part in it.
Dean Foods inspired other companies to do as they did and invest in dairy alternatives. Just so, McDonald’s, if successful, may further inspire other chains (and maybe the fast food giant was inspired to start in Finland because of the successful Hesburger chain, which carries a vegan burger).

Can vegans make a difference?
If we think a vegan burger at McDonald’s is a good idea, we can actively participate by buying or recommending the burger. Or, we can just silently support it and leave it to other people to buy it. But what if the vegan movement (in Finland or internationally) was actually able to help make or break this experiment? The fact that the burger is called McVegan seems to imply that the McDonald’s folks have at least to some degree the vegan target audience in mind.
Suppose that, as the news articles seem to imply, the success the Finish experiment can influence or determine if and to what extent this burger will be rolled out in other countries. Think of the massive number of animals who would be spared a lifetime of suffering. I feel confident in saying that, assuming all this, I would be fine with spending my own money on this and asking others to do the same. Furthermore, if I were director of a Finish organization, I might actually recommend all vegans to go there (though I would take into account the potential backlash of less pragmatic vegans).

It is important to realize that McDonald’s has tried to launch a vegan or vegetarian burger several times in different countries, but nowhere quite succeeded (except in India). Imagine that the McDonald’s US vegan burger launched in California and New York City in 2003 had succeeded, and had been rolled out nationally and internationally, and had inspired other companies… It’s hard to say if the vegan movement could have played a significant role in that, but it is not unthinkable. (Interestingly, the person who oversaw the Southern California rollout of the McVeggie burger, Don Thompson, eventually became McDonald’s CEO, but has since left the company and now is on Beyond Meat’s board of directors.)

Bad intentions are good enough
As is very often – and often rightly – the case, our judgment of an action is partly inspired by how we see the intentions or motivations of the people behind the action. It is entirely safe to assume that the motivation to introduce the McVegan is financial. A lot of Facebook comments are exactly about this: McDonald’s is only in it for the money; they are money grubbing bastards, etc., etc. Wanting to make a profit is, of course, entirely normal for a company. Yet, many of us don’t like that motivation, while we love ethical motivations. Do a little experiment for yourself: imagine the CEO of McDonald’s Finland is a vegan and introduced the burger because she wants to do something good for animals. Chances are you will notice your opinions about the whole thing shift.
The question, though, is how important are these intentions? The animals certainly don’t care. With Saul Alinsky, a social justice activist, I agree that we should allow people to do the right thing for the wrong reasons. Alinsky writes in Rules for Radicals:

“With very rare exceptions, the right things are done for the wrong reasons. It is futile to demand that people do the right thing for the right reason – this is a fight with a windmill. The organizer should know and accept that the right reason is only introduced as a moral rationalization after the right end has been achieved, although it may have been achieved for the wrong reason – therefore, he should search for and use the wrong reasons to achieve the right goals.”

I was CEO of McDonald’s for one day
Maybe twenty years ago, in my very early activism days, I organized a protest at a brand new McDonald’s in our town (Ghent, Belgium). We had a bunch of people there, with the obligatory signs, slogans and pamphlets, and one or two newspapers covered it. About fifteen years later, when I was director of EVA, the organization I had cofounded, I did what was called a “jobswitch” with the CEO of McDonald’s Belgium (this was an initiative of a sustainability organization of which we were both members). While I gave a presentation and got to know some of the people, practises and procedures of the McDonald’s Belgium team, my own team entertained and informed their CEO and presented him with the best meat alternatives available. The day finished with me and the CEO – who hadn’t seen each other all day – doing a closing meeting. Which happened… exactly at the McDonald’s where I had organized the protest many years ago…
The demonstration was an example of confrontation, while the jobswitch day was a form of collaboration, or at least, something that could lead to that. Today, these two forms of taking action are still valid and necessary, but I myself am more of a believer in collaboration than confrontation.

No bust, no revolution, but gradual change
McDonald’s is not going to just disappear. And, it’s not just suddenly going to turn into a vegan company. The only thing that can happen is gradual improvement. I respect vegans who want to have nothing to do with that improvement, and want to stay as far away from some companies as they can (rational arguments are helpful). I’m not saying that boycotts are never useful or successful. And, I can obviously see value in supporting vegan businesses as much as possible. But, I think that this alone won’t cut it, and I believe, for the animals, the support of big companies, well-intentioned or not, is not just a luxury. Like it or not, it is a necessity.

And just in case anyone at McDonald’s is listening: thanks for this try out AND yes, we want you to do more.

May the Force be with the vegan burger.

You can read more about how I think the vegan movement should relate to corporate stuff in my book How to Create a Vegan World.

Why vegans shouldn’t boycott Daiya cheese

Did you hear about the fire in the vegan cheese company? The cheese didn’t melt!
So goes a running joke about vegan cheeses. A few years ago, the Vancouver based company Daiya Foods changed all that, and was the first to bring to market a cheese that actually, seriously melted.

But then this week came… the Daiya Drama! Daiya foods announced they were being acquired by the Japanese company Otsuka. Otsuka is not just a big pharmaceutical company (to many that is bad enough in itself) but it also, as all pharmaceutical companies still do, tests on animals. The result is that many vegans are angry, state they will boycott Daiya, consider Daiya products no longer vegan, and call out the Daiya people for being hypocrites that are just in it for the money.daiya

 

I’ve been combing through some Facebook threads, trying to get a feel of the arguments used against Daiya and its acquisitition, and in this post I’ll take a quick look at why deals like these are not bad. I’ll also give some ideas about better communication in circumstances like these. It goes without saying that I dislike animal testing as much as the next vegan, and would love to have it be a thing of the past as soon as possible.

Facts first. What do we have to go by?

In a video that they posted on their Facebook page recently, the two Daiya founders say that they always wanted Daiya to be a global leader in the plant-based food scene. For that, they realized, they needed a partner. In Otsuka, they found a company “whose fundamental values align well with Daiya”. The partnership, according to the founders in the video “will ultimately enable more consumers around the world to enjoy a plant-based lifestyle”. Daiya will remain an independent subsidiary. Otsuka does indeed do animal testing – you can check this statement on their website.

So, Daiya will keep operating autonomously, but is now owned by a pharmaceutical company that does a certain amount of animal testing of a certain kind. That’s what we know. How bad is that?

Very bad, if many of the comments are anything to go by, or if we look at the petition signed by over four thousand people. The sense that I get is that people feel betrayed. The petition talks about “a stunning blow to the people who thought Daiya’s values did not include animal testing.” Apparently, to Daiya’s present detractors, it seems that while they thought Daiya was in it for all the right reasons, they now feel that Daiya sold out, for reasons of greed. I’ll get back to this.

What can be achieved by a boycott?
A boycott is usually meant to exert pressure on a company. Sometimes, boycotts work and companies or governments do change under pressure (particularly if there’s a lot of media attention involved). Often, however, a boycott is symbolic: there is no realistic expectation that a company will actually change, but boycotting the company gives the boycotters a clearer conscience. I think in this case, there is little to no chance that a small group of vegans could help reverse the sale. Nor is there much chance that the Daiya founders can exert pressure on Otsuka to stop testing on animals – if they want to keep bringing new drugs to the market, it’s something they are obligated to do, unfortunately.

Moreover, even if the Daiya sale could be reversed, or if Daiya would be bought by an unproblematic company, as far as I can see, this would not result in any more or less animals being killed or tested on. Daiya’s hands, in the eyes of some, might be less dirty, but would Otsuka do any less animal testing? Not that I can see. The idea that Daiya sales would actually contribute to animal suffering seems far-fetched to me.

Benefits of big business buy-ins
The Daiya founders’ stated motivation is that they hope Otsuka’s acquisition of Daiya will enable the company to reach more people and help them to follow a plant-based lifestyle. Let’s just take this claim at face value, for now. Is it absurd? Of course, not.
I’ve written before about the advantages of big business getting into plant-based (see Beyond Meat and Tyson and here), and I’ll only summarize them briefly here. Big companies have a lot more means at their disposal than small companies. They have bigger and wider distribution channels and a bigger customer base. With their money, they can obviously increase advertising and expose more and more people to Daiya, or any vegan product. They can boost R&D; so, new products can be developed and old ones can be made even better. Last but not least: once a company stands to win from the sales of plant-based products, it is logical to assume that their antagonism to veganism/plant-based alternatives will decrease.

Daiya-products
Playing the definition game

A part of the vegan community jealously guards the definition of vegan products and veganism (the initiator of the petition is called “keeping veganism vegan”). Are Daiya products still vegan?  To me, this is a boring question, but let’s see. It is possible to define “vegan” so strictly that we rule out almost anything. It is reasonable to say that a requirement for a product to be vegan is that it doesn’t contain any animal ingredients. I’m comfortable enough with this, as a definition.

A step further is to say that no animals may have been harmed in the making of a product. This still makes sense, but the question here is: :how far do you go? In this case, the parent company performs some obligatory animal experiments (note that we don’t know which kind of experiments – not all experiments cause the same kind of suffering, obviously). Does this exclude Daiya products from being vegan? And if one boycotts Daiya for this reason, shouldn’t one also boycott any business that sells vegan products but also profits to some extent from some kind of animal (ab)use? Non-vegan supermarkets would, it seems to me, be out of the question, under this definition. As would any non-vegan restaurant. And, forget about consuming any great vegan product from a company that also produces anything non-vegan.

Just to be sure, I wrote to Vegan Action, which certifies Daiya and other many products as vegan, to ask them their opinion. This is the answer I received:

“We do indeed still consider Daiya vegan.  The product line/brand is all vegan – does not contain any animal products and is not tested on animals.  That’s the criteria we use.  If we didn’t allow companies that are owned by parent companies to apply for and use the Certified Vegan Logo, there wouldn’t be any Certified Vegan products!”

Pushing it that far seems irrational and impractical. What’s going on here, I think, is a case of disillusionment and thwarted expectations: people expected Daiya to be a vegan company (rightly or wrongly). We thought they were one of us, and now we feel betrayed. And, we double down on betrayers! They are black sheep. While most of us have no qualms shopping in a non-vegan supermarket, we may not shop in a once vegan supermarket that introduced animal products all of a sudden. Likewise, we may dislike an ex-vegan much more than someone who was never vegan at all. Thwarted expectations. Human, but not entirely rational.

Now, let’s take a look at some of the communication on this issue. Most people (I’m not exempting myself) suck at communication. Vegans and others who are part of and very passionate about an ideology may be even worse than average. We get very, very sure of ourselves. That sometimes prevents us from thinking. Or, it makes us believe that we have all the answers already, that we’re the good guys and the other ones have made mistakes. And, that they can be chastised for those mistakes. It’s the problem with the world, kind of.

Here are a few things we can do to communicate better:

Practise slow opinion
Social media push us to react very quickly. Before we respond, we could ask ourselves questions, try to take the perspective of the other party, wonder if we have all the information that we need. We can think deeper and longer about things than we usually do. Fast opinion often doesn’t create any meaningful addition to a discussion, and only adds to anger and hate. We have enough of that, and if we want to change the way we interact with others, we need to step on the brakes, take a breath, and think again. I’ve written more on slow opinion here.

Remember that none of us is a mind-reader
So many people in their comments stated that the Daiya founders sold their company because they were greedy. Presumably these vegans are mind-readers, for how else could they claim to know the founders’ true intentions behind the sale? If we doubt their stated intentions, are we sure enough that we are right, so that we can utter these kind of horrible accusations?

Moreover, say the Daiya founders’ motivation to sell the company is financial. Do we know what they plan to do with the money? Maybe they’ll use it to invest in another great plant based company? Maybe they want to make significant donations? The thing is, we can’t know.

In general, there is a lot of cynicism going around about the corporate world (politicians and celebrities are another easy target of that kind of cynicism). Especially if our opinion might be wrong, it is very delicate to call others traitors or sell-outs or whatever. The Daiya founders are people too, as are all the Daiya staff. It is undoubtedly not pleasant to read all the sh#t that people write about them. And, it’s not motivating, but rather it might alienate them from the vegan movement. A good rule on social media is not to write something about someone that you wouldn’t say to them face to face. So often, we forget about the humans behind the social media conversations.

I think the fact that big companies want to acquire plant-based companies is a terrific sign. I do believe a partnership with a big company can indeed help Daiya to reach more people. Is this the founders’ real motivation? I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. Is this an ideal partnership? Probably not, but it’s not an ideal world either. This is what success will look like. It will not proceed along a road of purity, but it may be a bit messy and mixed at times. We’d better get used to it.

I’m not saying companies should be beyond reproach just because they offer great vegan products. As consumers, we’re definitely allowed to remain critical. Maybe Otsuka and Daiya will prove me naive at some point in the future. Till then, I’ll try to be open and rational rather than cynical, and I’ll try to have some faith in people, including those in the corporate world.

Want to read more about how our movement can deal with the business world? Check out my new book How to Create a Vegan World.

Hybrid meat to the rescue? An interview with Jos Hugense from Meatless

The lower the amount of animals we raise (mainly for food), the more suffering (and obviously killing) we avoid. Lowering the amount of animals raised can come as a result of different things. Basically, it would be the consequence of a lower demand for animal products. We can help lower demand by increasing the number of vegans (which is kind of the default objective of our movement). We can also get many people to reduce their consumption of animal products. This, in itself, can be done in different ways. People can reduce the number of meals (or days) in which they consume animal products. Or – and this is a strategy not commonly considered – we can produce animal products which contain a lower amount of animal ingredients. A Toyota Prius is called a hybrid car because it runs both on gas and electricity. In a similar way, there are hybrid food products: they are part animal, and part plant-based. Jos Hugense, founder and CEO of the Dutch company Meatless, is at the forefront of this technology.Jos Hugense

Vegan Strategist: Jos, can you explain to me what Meatless is?
Jos Hugense: Meatless produces texturized products based on grains and legumes for food processing companies that manufacture vegetarian, meat or fish products. To bind our products, we use ingredients from seaweed, rather than extrusion techniques. We only use natural whole foods as basic material, and our products are unique in the world. They are used in vegetarian and vegan products, but also in processed meat and fish products to replace part of the meat or fish. These so-called “hybrid” meat products are one more way of replacing and reducing raw materials of animal origin.

Can you give an idea of the size of your operation?
Meatless operates in twelve different countries and has now substituted around ten million kg of meat since we started in 2006. We have seen growth numbers of over twenty percent every year since 2010. We currently produce one ton of product per hour. A second new production line is being built and will be in production from September 2017.

the Meatless factory in Goes, Netherlands
the Meatless factory in Goes, Netherlands

How and why did you get into this business?
I worked in the meat processing business for over thirty years. During the BSE (“mad cow disease”) epidemic at the end of the nineties, I started to look for more healthy, low-fat meat products. The sustainability issues related to animal farming were not very well known at the time. Then, in 2006, I came across Livestock’s Long Shadow, the famous FAO report. This was the first signal that the strong growth in livestock production after World War II posed big environmental problems. From then on, we tried to design not only healthier meat products, but we also specialized in more sustainable food, either entirely plant-based or with much less meat.

What do you see happening right now in terms of meat consumption, both in Europe and globally?
Globally, meat consumption is still growing, at a rate of about two percent per year. We passed a global production of 300 million tons in 2015 and are now heading for 400 million tons in ten to fifteen years time. That would mean a sixfold increase compared to 1960. In some European countries, we see a slight decline of meat consumption, or at least growth has stopped. Vegetarian/vegan products are seeing a healthy growth rate of about six to seven percent per year in Europe, as well as globally (though in the UK meat consumption has actually grown in the past years). But in spite of this healthy growth, the meatfree market is still relatively small. There is no sign yet of a drastic reduction, and we can’t talk about any real transition yet. The current situation in Germany, for instance, is €260 million in meatfree sales versus €20 billion in meat sales. So, we are nowhere near achieving a balance between meat and meatfree.

Do you think your product is compatible with the ambitions of the vegan movement? Put another way: does the vegan movement have reason to support hybrid products? On the one hand, they definitely decrease the number of animals needed. On the other hand, is it possible that this is a way for meat to reestablish itself as more sustainable and healthy, and thus to keep existing?
Meatless products are used in a number of successful vegan products in Europe and the USA. I don’t know if the vegan movement should support Meatless; that is a question it should answer for itself. I can tell you that myself and my product have been the subject of negative comments and discussions by vegans who believe this product is not in alignment with their values. Things often end up getting polarized, and polarization is often the end of the discussion and mutual respect. My approach to the ethical question is pragmatic. I see meat production and meat consumption as something which will not disappear in the next decades. But we need to urgently reduce our environmental footprint. Moving towards a more sustainable diet is not something we can postpone for too long.

Could hybrid products help people get accustomed to the idea of eating less meat? Are products with Meatless obviously lower in meat content (i.e. is it mentioned clearly on the packaging), or is done more stealthily?
We do it both ways. In the past few years, we have seen more and more acceptance of hybrid products, which means we can use this in some situations or products as a unique selling proposition. On the other hand, the negative comments and discussions I just referred to obviously do not encourage producers and distributors to be transparent. Companies don’t particularly like to be targeted by angry customers.

What is the ideal percentage of plant-based material in hybrid products? How far can we go?
Today, the most common ratio is 20 to 25% of Meatless in a meat product. However, we are testing up to 80% plants/20% meat for one of the big European food processors. In some applications, like hamburgers, I see that as very well possible in the near future. In any case, for all kinds of processed meat products, at least 25% is perfectly possible.

I guess some of the best vegan alternatives don’t taste any less meaty than a hybrid product. Do you think most meat eaters, choosing between a vegan and a hybrid product, would prefer the hybrid?
Meatless in a meat product can improve the product’s quality in such a way that in a blind tasting, it is preferred over the 100% meat product. We never had a blind tasting where a vegan product was preferred over a meat product, though it is true that vegan products can get close to “the real thing”, especially with spices and sauces. I would be very satisfied if plant-based products could match the taste of meat. We might get there, but perhaps we also have to get used to the taste of different products like nuts and beans. Eating vegetarian or vegan doesn’t necessarily mean that one will use meat analogues in every meal.

Here’s a thought experiment: what are the advantages and disadvantages of each of these three scenarios in terms of bringing us closer to a vegan world?

  1. one vegan
  2. two 50% vegans (half of their meals are vegan)
  3. two people who eat only Meatless products which are 50% meat, 50% plant-based

That’s a difficult question. It depends on the criterion you use. For what it’s worth, if you are mainly concerned about sustainability, I’d say 1 and 2 are similar. Whether 2 or 3 wins, depends on the nature of the products consumed – some foods are more sustainable than others, even within the vegan range. If you mainly consider the number of animals used, the three options have quite similar effects, I think. Of course, if you also consider non-food products (clothing, etc.), then the vegans clearly win. Finally, if you look mainly at health, probably a vegan may have to pay more attention to his or her diet. But what is the healthiest of these options depends on the optimal degree of animal products in one’s diet. We eat about 250g a day now. If the optimal amount of meat and other animal products is zero, then the vegan consumer would be the healthiest. Now, of course, to determine how healthy or sustainable a lifestyle is you’d also have to look at other factors than just food.

What do you think will be the role of clean (cultured) meat?
It depends on the resources that will be required in order to produce it efficiently. At this time, it is a very interesting scientific experiment. But many things have to be in place, both ethically and in terms of sustainability. And there is the question whether people will eat meat that doesn’t come from an animal but from a factory, without the involvement of an animal. Many customers are very reluctant to accept chemical or industrial foods, and it’s hard to predict how they will react to clean meat. The future will tell. In the meantime, we have to do research and development and testing, and we have to work hard. Like I said, time is running out.

More info: www.meatless.nl

Want to read more about strategy for the vegan movement? Check out my book How to Create a Vegan World.

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 ask what you prefer, the answer you give will of course depend on the criteria 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 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, etc. 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 is 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 reasons 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 in 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 and happiness. 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, as 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 has, so far, not been 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 was 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:
www.plantbasedsolutions.com
Or listen to this podcast with David at the Plant-based entrepreneur

 

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