This FOX Business headline is grabbing: “Tyson Foods CEO: The Future of Food Might Be Meatless.” The article is reporting on a FOX Business television interview with Tom Hayes, the CEO of Tysons. Yes that’s Tysons, the chicken king. This is the company that has 100 plants and works with 11,000 family farms to raise, slaughter, package and ship meat we see in supermarkets across America.
Could Tyson Foods really be thinking of phasing out meat?
Tyson Foods, Inc. has its headquarters in Springdale, Ark. It is one of the world’s largest food companies. It has more than just Tyson. It has Jimmy Dean (you must have seen its sausage commercials), Hillshire Farm, Sara Lee, Ball Park and more. Tyson Foods was founded in 1935 by John W. Tyson. As of Oct. 1, 2016, the company had about 114,000 employees.
Hayes, its CEO as of last December, recently announced the company will stop using antibiotics as a part of its process to raise chickens. Now Hayes has told FOX Business: “Our new purpose as a company is to continue to raise expectations for the good big food can do. Big food is often seen as potentially bad, and in order for us to feed … 9 billion [people] we have to get in the game and say how do we come up with solutions and innovations.”
Tyson Foods is certainly trying to diversify in ways that don’t include meat. Tyson now reportedly owns a 5 percent stake in Beyond Meat, a plant-based protein start-up. FOX Business also reported that Tyson recently “launched a venture capital fund worth $150 million to invest in startups that develop meat substitutes.”
It is unclear if this investment in non-meat alternatives is simply an effort to respond to an evolving marketplace or if, as the FOX headline says, the company thinks the future is vegetarian. We reached out to Tyson Foods, Inc. for clarification.
“Contrary to the misleading headline, we remain firmly focused on our core meat and poultry business, but also believe in giving consumers more choices,” said Gary Mickelson, senior director of public relations at Tyson Foods. “Since consumer interest in all forms of protein remains strong, we’re exploring ways to give consumers additional protein options.”
As for Hayes, he certainly speaks in a modern, environmentally correct manner. He said, “If you take a look at the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) stats, protein consumption is growing around the world—and it continues to grow. It’s not just hot in the United States; it’s hot everywhere, people want protein, so whether it’s animal-based protein or plant-based protein, they have an appetite for it. 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.”
Hayes also mentions a “lower stress environment” for their chickens and says they now have “barns that collect the rain water in roofs that can be used for grain, irrigation and a lot of things that are pushing our thinking.”
This sounds like an oil giant boasting about investments in wind turbines and electric cars to pacify environmentalists. Tyson sounds like they want a cleaner, softer image. They also want to grow and diversify. If that’s what this is all about, it’s hardly controversial.
What makes conservationists, such as hunters, pause when they hear this is that these words sound like politically correct code said to placate the animal-welfare movement. That this is from a company that primarily raises, kills, cleans and ships meat is why this needs clarification. If, after all, a premier meat producer is embarrassed about its core business, then political correctness could starve us all.
Some of the groups they are trying to placate, of course, don’t want anyone to eat meat. They also want to ban all hunting. Showing these groups the white flag won’t just harm the American diet, but could have massive environmental consequences, as it is hunters who manage game populations, pay hunting leases that incentivize ranchers and farmers to maintain wildlife habitat and who fund most of the conservation in America today.
Likely, Tyson is just trying to make its brands seem friendlier. It is also responding to scientific developments in farming and livestock production and to massive changes underway in the marketplace.
At the higher end, for example, a lot of middle- and high-income consumers are now buying meat from specialty butchers who primarily sell “local,” “free-range” or “grass-fed” meat. Of course there is nothing more free-range, local or naturally-fed than the game species hunters bring home to their tables. But there are also many farms on the outskirts of suburbs where consumers (often people who don’t hunt but who want “organic” or naturally raised meat) show up, actually see animals grazing or pecking away in barnyards, and buy beef, pork or poultry they know has been raised in a way they prefer.
When I go to my local farmer (Sawkill Farm) to buy meat I always meet people who are there because they trust the quality and the ethics of a farmer who looks them in the eyes. When I’ve had conversations with other customers, as I wait for a cut of meat, I’ve often intentionally brought up hunting. The response is always positive, even though I can tell by the way they respond that they’ve never hunted. Many have even asked me if they can try some of my venison.
My local butcher, Fleishers, which opened its first shop in Kingston, N.Y., in 2004, and now has five locations, is a good example of how the meat industry is changing. Fleishers says it “reinvented the idea of the local butcher shop.” Company representatives explain that they are “pioneering a new approach that combines traditional butchery skills with sustainable, whole animal practices and modern-day food movement ideals.” They boast about their transparency by saying, “We believe in knowing where our food comes from so we can enjoy it with confidence and share firsthand knowledge with our customers. Our family-owned farm partners and world-class standards help ensure transparency at every step.”
This is much like how local craft brewing impacted the national beer market. It also must be part of the reason why Tyson and its management team is reacting this way. They want to clean up any possible issues with its public image so they don’t lose consumers. The trouble is, by boasting about their interest in alternatives to meat, they risk alienating the mainstream—as in the average person who cares about how his or her meat is raised and where it comes from, but who also doesn’t plan on becoming a vegan anytime soon. The ethics of veganism, after all, are hardly what some have claimed, but that’s another issue for another day.