What Really Happens When Meat Companies Buy Up Vegan Brands?

What Really Happens When Meat Companies Buy Up Vegan Brands?

(Corrected October 25, 2019). The human consumption of animal-derived milk has declined 25% in the last 20 years, while the global plant-milk market is projected to rise to $21.7 billion by 2022. Sales of nondairy ice cream increased 44% in just the last year, while dairy ice cream sales rose a mere 3%. According to new data from Innova Market Insights, the global plant-milk market was expected to reach a whopping $16.3 billion in 2018 (a huge increase from 2010 when it was just $7.4 billion), and it’s projected to rise to $21.7 billion by 2022.

Tom Gallagher, chief executive of Dairy Management Inc., a national organization that promotes dairy products and is funded by dairy farmers says: “The numbers are devastating. At some point, [dairy] milk could become an irrelevant beverage for the average consumer.”

Although growing at a slower rate than their plant-based dairy counterparts, plant-based meat sales exceeded $606 million in sales in 2016. According to Wall Street analysts, it could grow to be a $140 billion industry over the next 10 years.

None of this has gone unnoticed by the meat, dairy, and egg industries. They are realizing that their business models are archaic, outdated, and unsustainable.


What Really Happens When Meat Companies Buy Up Vegan Brands?
To feed the world, we’ll need more plants.

Feeding a Growing World With Plants

The world’s population is projected to reach close to 10 billion people by 2050, and there aren’t anywhere near enough resources on the planet to support animal agriculture on that scale, which is why the growth of companies making plant-based (as well as clean) meat, dairy, and eggs is crucial. If people can enjoy the same texture, taste, flavor, salt, fat, and familiarity from non-animal versions as they do from animal-based ones, then that’s what they’ll choose, especially when the plant-based options are healthier and cost-competitive. 

This fact — already being borne out in the marketplace — is forcing meat, dairy, and egg companies to sit up and take notice. They’re no longer seeing vegan food companies as mere blips on the radar but rather as competitors they should emulate, learn from, and even collaborate with. They’re recognizing that the profit potential of plant-based products is now so significant that the risk of not investing in what was once just a niche market is now higher than the risk of investing. And the easiest, lowest-risk, fastest way for them to get involved is to acquire the companies that have a proven track record of success. 

Hence, they’re buying into the success, growth, and future of the plant-based market and the disruption of the food industry as we know it. 

At the end of 2017, Field Roast, maker of vegan burgers, sausages, Chao cheese, and other grain-based meats was purchased by Canada’s Maple Leaf Foods for $120 million.

This is the second vegan acquisition for the meat giant, as it acquired plant-based meat brand Lightlife for $140 million in February 2017. (Conagra bought Lightlife in 2000…then a private equity investment firm bought them from ConAgra before Maple Leaf’s acquisition.)

Also in the fall of 2017, Canada-based dairy-free giant Daiya, was purchased by Otsuka, a Japanese pharmaceutical company. Otsuka paid more than $300 million for the vegan cheese and ready-meal brand. 

Also in 2017, Nestlé bought Sweet Earth, maker of vegan meat, frozen meals, burritos, and breakfast sandwiches. 

In November 2014, Pinnacle Foods purchased Gardein, maker of plant-based proteins and frozen meats, for $154 million.

However, not everyone sees these transactions in a positive light, particularly some vegans. Some vegans call for boycotts of the vegan companies they claim to have “sold out.” Some members of the plant-based community characterize these foods as being unhealthy and over-processed — declaring them worse than animal products. Vegans who defend the acquisitions have been accused by fellow vegans online of being “apologists for the meat industry” and “betrayers of the animals.” There are indeed many perspectives from which to view these events, and they’re worth parsing out — if not to change our own position but to at least understand another’s.

MorningStar’s Vegan Incogmeato Meat Heads to the UK
MorningStar Farms plans to launch its Incogmeato range in the UK.

The Animal-Product Company Perspective

The purpose of a business is to generate profits from the products or services it offers. One of the reasons corporations have included the use of animals in their business models is because it’s been profitable for them. That is to say, the people who run animal-product companies are not necessarily committed to killing animals as much as they are committed to making money. If they could make as much money—or more—not killing animals, they would do it. 

They’re not committed to animal cruelty; they’re committed to profits. 

That’s not a judgment. That’s a fact. 

With the growth of plant-based products in the marketplace, companies who’ve relied solely on profits from animal flesh and fluids are now diversifying their portfolios — even making their own line of plant-based goods: 

  • Tyson Foods launched a line of plant-based protein called Raised & Rooted
  • Kellogg added Incogmeato to its meat-free “next-gen product line”
  • Kroger announced its plans for a line of plant-based products called Simple Truth, and 
  • Hormel Foods, maker of Spam, is creating their own line of plant-based meats called Happy Little Plants

In addition to creating their own plant-based proteins, they’re buying into the plant-based market by acquiring smaller companies, All of this enables them to dip their toe into the plant-based market without much to lose.  Why? Because this is what large companies do. They play it safe (which is why many of them feel so archaic). The leaders of large corporations are skilled in matters of finance, supply chains, marketing, and production, but they’re not the risk-takers. They’re not the disrupters. They’re the ones who get disrupted by the start-ups, the risk-takers, the visionaries, the innovators—namely, the smaller companies who already took the risk and proved it was a worthy gamble. 

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Miyoko’s specializes in artisanal vegan cheese

The Vegan Company Perspective

But being small has its liabilities: namely, resources. The most pressing challenge for any company that wants to grow is how to finance that growth. The dilemma is a familiar one to many successful small businesses: stay independent and have a large impact on a small scale or take a risk and have a small impact on a large scale. It’s a very difficult decision, especially for visionaries, who have invested their sweat, blood, tears, and money into their venture but who have also invested their own mark, their own personality, principles, vision, imagination, and creativity. It takes courage, strength, and self-awareness to let go of your attachment to something you’ve built in order to give it a chance to grow.

In weighing the risks and benefits, smaller companies recognize that a larger company—with its access to larger distribution channels and economies of scale—can make their product much more successful, more affordable, and more accessible to a wider range of consumers. Sure, in order to grow, the small business could certainly take out more loans. Sure, they could raise private equity and be beholden to private shareholders. Sure, they could stay small and make sure only some people have access to their products (at a much higher cost). But to what end? I certainly don’t pretend to know the stress and risks the founders of these companies have taken on and wouldn’t presume to tell them how to run their affairs.

One of the complaints vegans make is that these big corporations are just “trying to make money off of vegans.” The truth is: so are the small, independent companies we know and love. They’re successful if we buy their goods. They survive because they’re making money, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. We should be thrilled that larger corporations and investors are recognizing that vegan businesses are viable, profitable ventures to collaborate with, partner with, invest in, and sometimes acquire. We want cruelty-free, animal-free products to dominate the marketplace. Don’t we? 

And I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but the corporations acquiring vegan companies would have a pretty poor business plan indeed if it were to “make money off of vegans.” They’re certainly happy to take our money (so are the independents), but when they look at consumer trends, they see that animal-free products are attracting a much wider consumer base than just vegans. David Sprinkle, research director for Packaged Facts, says vegetarians and vegans “together account for less than 15 percent of all consumers, and their numbers do not grow very rapidly, but a growing number of consumers identify themselves as flexitarian or lessitarian. It is this group that is most responsible for the significant and ongoing shift from dairy milk to plant-based milk,” for instance. 

Oatly has trouble keeping up with demand for its vegan milk

Non-Vegan Customer Perspective

When we call for boycotts of companies who’ve been purchased by larger corporations, we’re sending the message that we want to hinder the growth of these products in the marketplace, keep their prices high, and limit their availability and affordability to general consumers. Surveys show that convenience and costs are the two biggest factors in food choices for people — not ideology. People don’t want to be seen as different, and they don’t want to have to work that hard to find food. It has to be easy, convenient, familiar, and affordable. If there are barriers when it comes to finding plant-based foods,  purchasing the more affordable, convenient, familiar animal products becomes the more probable option.

People don’t aspire to purity or ideology when they’re hungry. They aspire to fill their bellies, and it should be as easy as possible for them to do so. That’s not to say I don’t encourage people to cook at home and rely on some homemade ingredients, but nobody does this 100% of the time. I encourage people to make their own homemade versions of plant-based sausages, milk, burgers, and other staples, but even *I* don’t do this 100% of the time. And what’s more, it’s wonderful to have store-bought options that actually make it easier to cook at home. Should I churn my own coconut-based butter? Age my own cashew-based cheese made from my own plant-based milk? Perfect my own seitan? Okay, well, I do enjoy doing most of this, but not all the time. I don’t expect that level of perfection in myself, so why would I ask it of someone else—especially someone to whom all of this is new and overwhelming? 

The bottom line is the more vegan products in the world, the better  — whether they’re made by small companies, large companies, subsidiary companies, independent companies, veteran companies, or new companies. And while it’s tempting to demonize an acquired vegan company and lionize an independent one, the truth is the smaller brands get a boost when larger brands get more capital and more exposure. We can support whichever ones we want (that’s the beauty of a free market), but do we need to lead a public crusade against those who have made a different business decision than we would have made? None of these companies are philanthropic organizations—not even the independent ones; in the end, they’re businesses that make cruelty-free products. And although I’m grateful for them, as such, they don’t owe me anything. They’re beholden only to their employees, their staff, and their families. They’re not beholden to me or my principles or my values. 

What Really Happens When Meat Companies Buy Up Vegan Brands?
The world is changing for humans and animals.

An Imperfect, Improving World

The reality is we bring billions of animals into this world only to kill them. The reality is people are dying from preventable diseases associated with the consumption of these animals. The reality is the raising of these animals wreaks havoc on our ecosystems, and nature suffers for our greed. The reality is also that we have new advancements, new technologies, and innovative plant-based and “clean” products that satisfy a growing population but that don’t destroy animals, our earth, and our health. 

The reality is that there are vegan companies doing the hard work to help the public make healthier, more convenient, more affordable, more compassionate choices — and who are helping animal-based meat, dairy, and egg companies to get pointed in the right direction without having to start from scratch. 

In order to stave off present suffering and future crises, we have only a limited time to create, produce, test, approve, package, distribute, market, and sell these products to eager consumers. What would it look like to support these individuals, investors, and visionaries — vegan and non-vegan — for building and growing this profitable, compassionate paradigm? What would it look like to support the consumers — vegan and non-vegan — who are demonstrating that there is money to be made by not hurting anyone? 

Colleen Patrick-Goudreau’s compassionate living philosophy is propelling plant-based
eating into the mainstream and forever changing how we regard animals. A recognized
expert and thought leader on the culinary, social, ethical, and practical aspects of living
compassionately and healthfully, Colleen is a speaker, cultural commentator, podcaster,
and award-winning author of seven books. She shares her message of compassion and
wellness on national and regional broadcast programs and as a monthly contributor to
National Public Radio. Her newest book “The Joyful Vegan” will be released in November 2019 and is available for pre-order.

[Editor’s note: This article was corrected to reflect the accurate sales expectations for plant-based milk in 2018.]