The Supply Side: Plant-based food demand pushes Tyson Foods toward product innovation

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 1,489 views 

Tyson Foods is the largest U.S. food company with annual revenues expected around $42.93 billion this year. The bulk of that revenue will come from meat sales, but the company says the business is more than meat protein.

“We don’t think it has to be either-or at Tyson,” said Justin Whitmore, chief sustainability officer at Tyson Foods. “We can make great-tasting, plant-based protein to complement our meat protein to give consumers more options at mealtime.”

Whitmore oversees the company’s plant-based protein products. He told the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal the new Raised & Rooted nuggets and hamburger patties are launching at retail on a national scale in the next few weeks. He said the shipments went to retailers in July and products should be in retailers’ meat and freezer cases before the end of summer.

The company has not yet released which retailers will sell the products. Given Walmart is the leading grocer in the nation in terms of locations — and Tyson Foods’ largest customer — it is likely the products will be sold there, in addition to other major grocery chains.

Whitmore said Tyson Foods will use its relationships with quick-serve restaurants to make the products available to customers. Tyson Foods will also work with individual chains to formulate the right products for those restaurants.

Restaurant chain Burger King introduced an alternative meat burger in April: the Impossible Whopper. It was developed in partnership with California-based Beyond Meat. Tyson Foods had an investment in Beyond Meat but sold that stake just before launching its Raised & Rooted products.

Whitmore said Tyson Foods has worked on plant-based proteins for five years, starting with a strategic planning process looking at global eating trends. He said the company laid considerable groundwork in plant-based protein before he joined the business in 2017 from McKinsey & Co.

“Meat-eating consumers are evolving their dietary habits at levels not seen on historical trend lines,” Whitmore said. “The flexible consumers look at the marketplace differently today. At Tyson, we don’t think this trend will disrupt our meat business, but it is a nice compliment to that business.”

Plant-based meat alternatives are a growing business, valued at $800 million and accounting for just 2% of total meat sales, according to the Good Food Institute (GFI). Caroline Bushnell, associate director for GFI, said it’s not a bubble or fad. It’s a real change in consumer behavior.

The report from data technology company SPINS and GFI estimates total plant-based food alternatives are a market worth $4.5 billion. Plant-based milk alone is a $1.9 billion industry, and plant-based meat is the second-largest category at $801 million.

Whitmore said innovation around Tyson Foods’ Raised & Rooted products does not change the way consumers have to shop. The products will be found in the freezer and meat cases with other Tyson Foods products. He said Tyson Foods is working with its retail customers to ensure it has the alternative-meat products in the Raised & Rooted brand that best fits its customers’ needs.

When asked how deep the pipeline was for Raised & Rooted, Whitmore said Tyson is looking across its entire business for opportunities to innovate new products that fit with the growing flexitarian lifestyle.

“The creation of the Raised & Rooted brand is an excellent example of Tyson’s ability to think big and move fast, capitalizing on our existing infrastructure,” Whitmore said. “We began development of our alternative protein products last year and have succeeded in creating a new brand and bringing those products to market in well under a year. Customers tell us they love the taste and nutritional attributes and are excited to partner with us.”

Whitmore said the top barrier for consumers trying plant-based proteins is the fear of inferior taste. He said Tyson Foods’ new products perform well in sampling tests on both taste and health benefits.

The Raised & Rooted hamburger patty is made from a blend of Angus beef and isolated pea protein. The patties have 19 grams of protein and 40% fewer calories than an 80% lean/20% fat all-meat patty. The fully-cooked nuggets are made with a blend of pea protein, egg white, bamboo and golden flaxseed. The frozen nuggets have 9 grams of protein and 33% less saturated fat than typical Tyson Foods nuggets. Soybean oil is used in the product, and there are 5 grams of fiber.

Tyson Foods has not disclosed where the products are being made. Depending on demand, there will likely be several plants manufacturing the products and other plant-based proteins in the next year and beyond.

Market research firm NPD Group reports about a quarter of the U.S. population, many of whom are not vegan or vegetarian, say they eat and drink plant-based foods and beverages and animal protein regularly. NPD said plant-based proteins are now mainstream as more consumers seek “protein-rich and better-for-you” foods.

“Plant-based proteins are no longer just a meat replacement. It’s now its own category,” said David Portalatin, NPD food adviser. “It’s possible that protein overall is evolving into a category. Whether that’s animal meat, beans, nuts, soy, wild game or other proteins, in forms ranging from beverage to center-of-plate.”

Whitmore said Tyson Foods’ desire to get more involved in the plant-based foods protein arena should have no bearing on the thousands of farmers the company contracts with to provide chickens, turkey, hogs and cattle. That’s the core area of the meat giant’s business. He said growers and farmers are as important as they have ever been, and meat will still be the majority of the company’s business for years to come.

Tyson Foods CEO Noel White said earlier this year that he believes the demand for meat in the U.S. will remain steady. He said flexitarian dieters provide room for success in both meat and alternative meat categories, and Tyson Foods will be involved in both segments.

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