Opinion: Tyson Foods and Cargill enter alt-meat fray

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Dave Dickey

I’m reminded by what’s going on over at Tyson Foods and Cargill these days of an ad campaign three decades ago.

Back in the mid-1980s Wendy’s debuted a T.V. commercial featuring three elderly ladies dining at the fictional “Home of the Big Bun” fast food restaurant.

Two of the ladies noted with some bemusement that the bun was oh so BIG.  Inside was a minuscule hamburger patty.

The third lady –  actress Clara Peller – asked the obvious… “Where’s the beef?”

Consumers may soon be asking that question – along with the even more problematic “Is it beef?” – should the two big ag companies get fledgling efforts to ramp up beef substitutes to a grocery store near you.

Last October Tyson Foods purchased a 5 percent stake in Beyond Meat, who’s self-disclosed mission is to “create mass-market solutions that perfectly replace animal protein with plant protein.”

Tyson CEO Tom Hayes can squint his eyes and see a future – perhaps not as far off as most of us might imagine – where plant protein sales could rival that of good old ranchers raising calves for slaughter:

“Plant-based protein is growing almost at this point, a little faster than animal-based, so I think the migration may continue in that direction.”

Tyson is gambling that meatless-meat will move beyond niche market appeal among fitness enthusiasts to the rest of us carnivores who rather park it on the couch and watch sports.

Nothing too controversial in Tyson’s plan: veggie-burgers and veggie-chicken for all.

But not to be outdone, Cargill took the next logical step in the alt-meat wild west with its investment into Memphis Meats, a start-up company dedicated to growing meat in the laboratory from self-reproducing animal cells.

Yup – Cargill is hoping you dear consumer will eat hamburgers that didn’t come from cattle.

The technology has the backing of some heavy hitters including Bill Gates and Richard Branson.

Cargill executive vice president Todd Hall says the hope is to give an ever increasingly finicky U.S. public options when it comes to protein consumption.

Cargill and Memphis Meats still have a lot of hoops to jump through before its cell-culturing process turns a profit.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and well as the USDA will need to figure out whether the process is safe for human consumption.

Then there will be a massive debate over whether or not it’s meat in the traditional sense, and if not, what labels should read.

Not to mention wooing what probably will be a large segment of the U.S. population gravitating toward “natural” foods free from genetic modification and artificial ingredients, and who might skeptically ask “Where’s the beef?”

It’s an uphill battle to be sure.

In the short term, Tyson Foods probably has the inside track with a more proven, non- controversial approach.  But long term, I wouldn’t bet against Cargill, despite all the challenges.

The world population continues to expand and could reach almost 10 billion people by 2050.  Diets are changing with greater preference toward beef and proteins.

And the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that some 30 percent of ice-free land on the planet is currently used in livestock production.

So clearly something has to give.

Traditional cattle production will one day not be enough to feed a demanding world population.

About Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch.

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