Tyson Foods invests in Beyond Meat: what gives?

Earlier this year, I mentioned that a former McDonald’s exec had taken a seat on the board of Beyond Meat, a start-up that produces plant-based meat substitutes. Now, the New York Times reports that Tyson Foods–yes, Tyson, which is so abusive to the animals it slaughters that there’s an entire website chronicling the company’s cruel practices–has purchased a five percent stake in Beyond Meat.

The hell?

“The question in my mind with these acquisitions is always why they’re being done,” [Michele Simon, executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association] said. “The most positive view is that this means the meat industry is shifting away from animal meat to plant-based meat, but I don’t think we know that’s the case yet — it could also be a way of distracting attention from their industrial meat business.”

Ethan Brown, the founder and chief executive of Beyond Meat, said he knew the investment would raise eyebrows, particularly among the most ardent vegans and vegetarians.

“I’m hoping, though, that they and others will see this as part of a deliberate course of action to get out of the penalty box that’s the ‘alternative’ section in the supermarket and get into a mainstream discussion with the consumer,” Mr. Brown said.

I don’t know Mr. Brown, and I’m not familiar with Beyond Meat’s products. But I can tell you one thing for sure: Tyson is not doing this for any kind of shiny, happy goodwill charm offensive. Nor do I think that Ms. Simon is entirely right when she suggests that the investment is meant to distract attention away from Tyson’s notorious business practices.

Like all for-profit companies, Tyson is in the business of making money. It has access to a small army of analysts who assess current food trends and make predictions about where the market is going. It’s clear that meat consumption is off-trend, so Tyson invested in something that is clearly on-trend–namely, meat substitutes.

FWIW, I’m not complaining. I think it’s great that Tyson sees the same future I’m seeing, one with less cruelty, less meat. That’s a bold vision for a company that’s made its mark by killing animals. It’s as bold as automakers investing in ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft, or fossil fuel companies investing in renewable energy.

But make no mistake: if the winds shift tomorrow and consumers go full-on carnivore, Tyson will be out of the plant-based protein business faster than you can say “factory farm”.

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