The CEO of America’s biggest processor of meat is betting on a meatless future

Moving toward meatless.
Moving toward meatless.
Image: Reuters/Stefan Wermuth
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One of the most committed carnivores in the world has conceded that plant-based “meats” have a place on future kitchen tables.

Tom Hayes works at the epicenter of American meat. From his office in Springdale, Arkansas, he’s charged with running Tyson Foods, the biggest American meat company, second globally only to Brazil’s JBS. But this week, Hayes appeared on Fox Business, where he explained something that’s become crystal clear: Plant-based meat substitutes are not a fad. He said:

Protein consumption is growing around the world—and it continues to grow. It’s not just hot in the US; 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.

For a major meat industry executive, that kind of proclamation is still very much the exception and not a rule. The industry has generally been reluctant to acknowledge rising consumer interest in plant-based protein products masquerading as a “cleaner” meat.

And it isn’t just lip service from Tyson. The company in October announced it was investing an undisclosed amount of money for a 5% stake in Beyond Meat, the buzzy meatless burger company that’s been laser-focused on getting its product into supermarket meat sections. With Tyson executives now advocating for meatless products, it will likely be easier for Beyond Meat to achieve its goal.

The company has also started its own venture-capital fund that’s prepared to invest $150 million in startups that focus on developing meat substitutes. It’s a new direction for a company that’s long been a meaty stalwart, a move presumably led by Hayes, who only took the reins as CEO in June 2016.