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.




23 thoughts on “Beyond Meat and Tyson: sleeping with the enemy?

  1. Great post. I believe that collaborations like this can only lead to more positive change in the vegan movement. I especially love this line: “isolating someone or something doesn’t really do anything in terms of influencing them in the right direction.” We MUST remember this if we’re ever going to persuade others to change.

    1. Love this article, and definitely agree with highlighting that line. It’s so easy to get defensive with veganism. We have to practice patience and realize that it takes time for people to deprogram. Great read, and great commentary!

  2. These are the kinds of steps that are likely necessary to get to a more plant-based world. Most people in developed countries will always be fed primarily by Big Food. This gets us closer to most people being fed plant-based Big Food more of the time. I’m encouraged by it.

    Thanks for your interesting thoughts.

  3. I think you come close to the real distinction, Tobias, when you ask what we would do if we take an animal’s perspective. That is really what this comes down to: Do we care about how something makes us feel / if it justifies our worldview, or do we are about how it actually helps animals?

  4. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer still!
    A good move for both parties (and animals).
    If someone thinks otherwise – I feel for you… now get over it

  5. As always, I am a big fan of your work. But I have serious problems with this analysis.

    You make a reasonable case that deontological vs consequentialist ethics play *some* role in this. But I don’t think it completely holds up and more important — based on extensive experience with other versions of this — I don’t think it is actually right. (Also, minor aside: The trolley dilemma is more about the ethics of omission vs commission. Rule- vs act-based ethics play some role in it, but it is not really the optimal touchstone for explaining that difference.)

    Crediting the opponents of this partnership with following a deontological ethic gives them a lot of credit that seems undeserved in most cases. What is the process rule that they are trying to follow? “Never have anything to do with Tyson”? It seems unlikely that is a rule anyone has ever thought seriously about. “Never have anything to do with [or engage in commerce with] anyone who supports animal agriculture”? That is a more plausible rule, but one that I am confident approximately none of the opponents actually follow themselves. “Don’t constructively engage with anyone that I personally have particularly visceral objection to”? That is probably getting closer, but it is not a defensible rule. In any case, it is probably not really quite that either.

    To a lesser extent, it is not necessarily the case that proponents of the investment are being purely consequentialist. It is probably true mostly. But perhaps some believe in market approaches and, though they lack the knowledge to assess the consequences, they think that a market move that a “good guy” decided was good must therefore be a good thing. Perhaps just believe in freedom of association, and are annoyed by those who would deny such rights, regardless of consequences.

    But ultimately I think the opposition is something that deserves no credit for being about ethics. It is largely about tribalism (I am working on an essay that identifies this tribe as “alt-left”, the not-really-leftist counterpart of the not-really-rightist “alt-right”). That plays at two levels. First, they define enemies and make rules based on who is the enemy, such as “never constructively engage with them because they are Evil”. That is not ethics, it is atavism. Second, they impose these rules primarily within their tribe. And never mind that the company did not agree to be part of their club and play by its rules; they conscripted it into their club and demanded that it accept the tribe’s notion of good and evil. Consider: all of these people are quite happy to do business with or have relationships with entities that do not support their tribe and often engage in actions the tribe would condemn. But this is not actually a deontological rule about who they will have a constructive relationship with, but rather a rule for members of the tribe that was violated (again, never mind that the actor did not agree to join the tribe).

    Beyond pure tribalism, you can fiddle with concepts like “morals”/disgust which some people mistake for ethics, but which are quite different. Again, the key is that they act at an atavistic level, not the level at which real ethics live. They are also extremely inconsistent, and so moral opprobrium and disgust reactions do not follow anything remotely consistent like a deontological rule. There is no way to debate whether a particular action should generate a reaction of disgust because it is irrational and only somewhat predictable.

    I have seen this play as a much larger and longer-running drama among “public health” people who condemn anyone who constructively engages with their tribe’s declared enemies (Big Tobacco, Big Food, etc.). Because that war has been much bigger than veganism, it has spilled over a bit more. But basically it has all the same elements. I have seen professors write analyses very much like yours (so you are in good company), but they are very obviously wrong about what is going on. They are usually trying to create excuses for the alt-left haters and abusers. It also plays out to a lesser extent among the enviros. E.g., those who claim to oh-so-worried about CO2 emissions, but adamantly oppose the one technology (nuclear power) that could actually make a serious dent in it, and their embrace of environmentally destructive technologies that offer very little or zero help (like industrial wind power). Why? Because their tribe hates nukes and loves wind turbines. Why? Well, er, um, just because that is the rules of the tribe.

    Finally, there is also a good case to be made that those who try to impose tribal rules on others are being more consequentialist than you think. A big part of their motivation is objecting to being doing what they ostensibly want the “wrong” way. Anti-tobacco zealots object to people quitting smoking using e-cigarettes because they do not like the outcome (they did not suffer through quitting properly). Vegan zealots do not want people to become more vegan (or even completely vegan) as a result of becoming happy consumers of Tyson Brand Realmeat Dinners, because they are supposed to have a Road to Damascus moment. If you try to fit such their motives into an ethical framework (despite their ethical dubiousness), it is consequentialist not deontological.

    1. thank for this very interesting analysis carl! i especially liked the last part (do you have any examples/quotes/texts of anti tobacco people being against e-cigarettes and other ways to reduce/stop smoking that seem to them like “cheating”?)

      i was a bit wary in fact of using the terms deontological and consequentialist but i wanted to make the link to give some more clarification and make the parallel with phil. theory. Would you agree more with that part of the text if i had left out those terms? (i.e. if i had just focused on values vs results?)

      i do agree that groupthink is a big part of this, which is why i wrote that the values-results dichotomy is just one way to see this.

      would you like to write me an email at i’d like to discuss some other things with you

      1. Tobias,
        Sorry for the lag. It has been extremely busy and I just circled back to check the reply. I will send you that email, and can pick up this or whatever topic. Just to give a partial answer here to any reader who comes across that:

        The anti-tobacco zealots do not, of course, voice the “you are not doing it the right way” sentiment. That is an observation of those of us who study them. I can point you to examples of us coming to the conclusion that is part of their motivation.

        I think you would have been on firmer ground if you did not try to make this about consequentialism vs deontology. As I have alluded, others have tried to make it about “morals” vs some particular ethic. You refer to “values” which is in this neighborhood. Of course, those concepts are necessarily fuzzier than ethics, but make some sense.

  6. I always find it funny when completely normal business activity creates such controversy within the vegan community. The vegan community is becoming an entirely irrelevant force.

  7. Spot on as always Tobias 🙂

    Recently i had the same question about the Body Shop, which is non tested on animals but belongs to L’Oreal, which, as a group, does.
    As a consumer, i’d rather support with my money small “hard to the core” ethical brands. So i wouldn’t necesssarily buy the body shop (im not dead against it either). But most non vegans would be open to buy the Body Shop which has far more reach than those small companies i buy from and diffcult to get if you don’t know where to find them. I believe in the end these two types of companies are talking to different consumers. (Similarly: herta in france is known for its ham products, and just launched vegan saucages. I wouldn’t buy them but i think it’s a good thing for Herta consumers to go towards more plant-based alternatives).

    In that case with Beyond Meat, something that could happen is that Beyond Meat will lose many vegan consumers but gain some others. The target may just shift a bit.

    Finally, even though unlikely, i wouldn’t rule out the fact that this may just be a strategic move from Tyson food to diminish the influence of Beyond meat. By making it public that they are investing in BM, they know very well that many consumers would stop buying these products.
    While it seems a little extreme, company practices have often been far from ethical, so i’ll be waiting to see how things pan out on that front 🙂


  8. most “evil” companies own stock or actually bought the whole healthy small company. Look at who owns who in the world of business, you would be surprised. Maybe Beyond meat 1) didn’t know who bought the stock or 2) needed the cash input to keep moving forward. It is hard to be a small company starting out. and really does it matter who has stock as long as there are vegan options and less death.

  9. I mostly agree with what you wrote. However, I like to be the devil’s advocate. What happens if Tyson do research on althernative food, and in the process they add ingredients that are not good for the people; for example, GMO, isolated soy protein, carrageenan, high fructose corn syrup (now called corn syrup or corn sugar), etc? Do we suppose to ignore these possiblities and just go along with them and buy these products? Or do we continue to point out them out?
    What would hold companies like Tyson to the fire, by making sure they really invest in good, healthy food and not create food quickly to just make a profit?

    1. The proposed “reasoning” seems to suggest that both Tobias and I gave too much credit to the opposition. He proposed it was deontological, but this superficially (see below) consequentialist. I proposed it was tribalism, but this is really more like a belief witchcraft, that the mere presence of the Evil Ones will cause corruption (in the classical sense of the word).

      The suggestion is that members of the Deep Woo faction will object because of the witchcraft, which rings true. Somehow they believe that a 5% equity stake by Tyson will give them control over engineering and marketing decisions. Moreover, they will use that control to make decisions that are contrary to the best interests of the company for some reason. (Either that or the other stakeholders were making decisions that were contrary to their interests and Tyson will save them from it.) Those decisions will be, for no fathomable reason, about product engineering inputs.

      Now I can see the temptation to joke about trolling the Deep Woo types with such decisions. The one about GMOs was especially amusing (not sure if it was meant to be a joke): “hey, they are using substrate plants that have one carefully altered gene in them to make their utterly novel and in-every-way-modified weird new stuff!; the bastards!!!”

      What the proposed way of thinking really comes down to is basically the same as thinking witches in the village are corrupting the crops or LBGT or Muslim personnel in a school are corrupting the children. It is superficially consequentialist, but the claims about consequences are transparently concocted to justify the attitude. There is no explanation for why the actors would want to cause the particular actions, let alone how they could make it happen. And sometimes (as in the present example of choosing which plant any needed sugar is derived from, or the case of gay people giving the impression that being gay is *gasp* normal), there is not even a reason to think the outcome is bad.

      So it is back to a version of tribalism. But it is not even the simple in-group vs out-group tribalism I proposed, but a more “ism” laced version, in which the evil out-group actors cause corruption by their very presence.

  10. Tyson Foods is a particularly unethical company. In 2011, they paid a $4 million criminal fine because they were BRIBING inspections veterinarians (WHY would they have to bribe inspections veterinarians). They dump toxic waste into rivers killing fish. They recently were found guilty in a class action suit because they weren’t paying overtime to their employees. This company is a moral and ethics nightmare. If Beyond Meat is willing to grow at any cost and completely look the other way when it comes to values, then it is not a company I will continue to support.

    There is no guarantee that as the population grows, meat consumption will be reduced and fewer animals will suffer. More people will simply be eating more meat unless as a percentage more people become vegan which may or may not offset the higher population of people eating meat. People become vegans/vegetarians for two reasons: 1) animal welfare and 2) health concerns. Current vegans and vegetarians are upset about this investment because they feel betrayed; being vegan is a lifestyle and an investment from a company that slaughters animals is inconsistent with that lifestyle. As to health, the fact is that plant-based WHOLE foods (meaning UNPROCESSED) foods are simply healthier than PROCESSED meat substitutes. It’s completely possible to get enough protein from plants: nuts, seeds, beans, etc. Once someone goes down the vegan road for health purposes, they will eventually give up most fake meats because they are so heavily processed if they educate themselves about health protein sources.

    At the end of the day, there’s no right way to do the wrong thing. Taking an investment from Tyson Foods compromises Beyond Meat’s values on many levels (as cited earlier). There is ALWAYS more than just one option, and Beyond Meat surely could have found another way to achieve its growth objectives without partnering with a company that has paid millions of dollars in criminal fines because it was bribing inspections veterinarians.

  11. Tyson is an awful company but so is Beyond Meat!
    Any company taking money from BILL GATES is the devil.
    Mr. Gates has one of the WORST track records when it comes to giving a shit about other people.
    Read into his vaccinations and how he kills and cripples children all over the world by ‘testing’ these things out on them.
    You think Beyond Meat gives a f**k about vegans?!? LOL.
    Wake up.
    This is a FOR PROFIT company who is backed by some of the shadiest, most unethical HUMAN BEING ever.
    These people don’t care about us or what we eat, do you really think they give a shit about animals?
    Its beyond morals or ethics or vegan or not vegan.
    This is about RIGHT and WRONG.
    Research Beyond Meat a little more before you to go bat for them.
    A Vegan who will NEVER touch Beyond Meat.

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