A conference held last week at the University of Washington in Seattle was both a ho-hum meeting of a bunch of folks united in a singular cause — making lots of money in the emerging alt-meat sector — and at the same time a portent of things to come in the food business.
The event was sponsored by UW’s CoMotion Labs, a think tank-type business incubator, and the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that has tried to co-opt the “clean meat” meme but spends its time and resources filing lawsuits against FDA over use of the “soy milk” label and against USDA over regulation of egg-free fake “mayo.”
Is there money to be made by pursuing meatless products manufactured in test-tube environments?
“I don’t know of any companies that are true innovators in this space that are flailing,” Chris Kerr told conference attendees. Kerr is the investment manager at New Crop Capital, a D.C.-based venture capital firm that “invests in talented, focused entrepreneurs whose products or services replace foods derived from conventional animal agriculture,” as the firm’s “About Us” statement proclaims. New Crop proudly declares that livestock production is “an antiquated and inefficient food production system with serious vulnerabilities.”
There’s some truth to that, but here’s the real reason New Crop Capital sees potential in the alt-meat sector, again from its own website: “The meat, egg, and dairy sectors represent a $700 billion global market that is ripe for innovation and large-scale disruption.”
Yeah — any global sector generating $700 billion offers entrepreneurs all kinds of opportunity to grab a piece of that action.
Further proof? Guess who’s on NCC’s board of trustees? Bruce “Mr. Meet Your Meat” Friedrich, who has spent decades as one of the loudest voices at PETA. He’s a nice guy, extremely articulate in espousing the tenets of the vegan lifestyle and one of the most sincere true believers among animal activists.
But if you Google him, it’s now all about the Benjamins.
No more mention of PETA. No more animal rights activism. Now, it’s about being a co-founder of New Crop Capital and about connecting with business entrepreneurs and eco-activists, which happens to align nicely with the alt-meat positioning that society needs to kill off livestock production to save the environment.
And cash in big-time in the process.
The Quest for a ‘Chikin’ Nugget
Even the journalistic reports of the alt-meat meeting were clear about the underlying theme: GeekWire.com quoted Kerr saying, “Then there’s the profit angle: The next frontier for clean meat and plant-based protein is to produce products that are trendier and more affordable. That’s what it’ll take to expand the market from those who are committed to a meatless lifestyle or sustainable agriculture to the price-conscious mass market.”
One of the other principal presenters echoed that theme.
“What I don’t think has been made is a super-cheap nugget that can displace chicken,” Josh Balk told conference attendees. Balk, you might be aware, was a co-founder of Hampton Creek, the manufacturer of Just Mayo, a vegan product involved in a 2014 scandal in which company officials “quietly launched a campaign to purchase mass quantities of Just Mayo from stores without telling investors,” as Bloomberg reported. The idea was to create the illusion that the product was more popular than it really was.
Balk was upfront about his motive: Come up with a “meatless” chicken nugget to displace some of the millions of tons of actual chicken nuggets sold in foodservice.
To save the chickens?
No, to grab a share of that market.
Don’t get me wrong. There is absolutely nothing wrong with entrepreneurial efforts to cash in by jumping onto the analog meatless product bandwagon. That’s what makes America great.
But when even crusaders for poor, abused farm animals like Friedrich deep-six their activist backgrounds to appeal to a wider audience beyond born-again vegan believers, it’s obvious that the alt-meat industry is focused on replacing real meat in support of an enduring principle.
It’s called the bottom line.
Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.