Why Tofurky’s Acquisition by a Dairy Subsidiary Is Promising News for Plant-Based Meat
When Field Roast and Lightlife were acquired by Canadian meat giant Maple Leaf Foods several years ago, some vegans weren’t too pleased. The same happened when Daiya was bought by Japanese pharmaceutical behemoth Otsuka at the same time, and the same with Gardein, now owned by ConAgra. So it’s not surprising that some vegans aren’t thrilled by the just-announced acquisition of Tofurky by a Japanese dairy conglomerate’s subsidiary.
A few days ago, US-based tofu maker Morinaga Nutritional Foods declared its purchase of Tofurky. Morinaga Nutritional Foods is a subsidiary of Morinaga Milk, a multi-billion-dollar Japanese dairy company traded on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. You can see Morinaga Milk’s press release about its Tofurky acquisition here.
As a vegan for the past 30 years who’s been regularly enjoying Tofurky products that entire time, including a Tofurky deli slice sandwich while typing this very sentence, I support Tofurky’s move and suggest other plant-based advocates should, too.
If animal-free meat, egg, and dairy alternatives are going to start making a dent in animal consumption, they’re going to need some help from the biggest players in the food industry. Those are the companies that have the resources and distribution networks necessary to produce and distribute at scale, helping plant-based products become even more mainstream.
We’ve seen this before, in the largest success plant-based alternatives have had to date. It’s not coincidental that the explosion of success for plant-based milk occurred after alt-milk brands started getting acquired by major dairy companies.
For example, Silk maker WhiteWave was acquired in 2002 by dairy leader Dean Foods, and is currently owned by another major player in the dairy industry, Danone (known in the US as Dannon). Those acquisitions greatly expanded Silk’s reach and marketshare. Plant-based milk has now grown to 15 percent of the US fluid milk market. (Notably, the same hasn’t yet happened with cheese.) Similarly, a major reason for the dramatic expansion of plant-based eggs in the market is Just Egg’s partnership with egg giant Michael Foods.
On the other hand, plant-based meat in the US is still only about one percent of the volume of animal-based meat, and even less around the world. The availability of plant-based meat has dramatically improved in recent years, but animal meat demand continues to remain at record levels, while meat companies keep building new slaughterhouses.
At a time when some animal ag companies are walking away from investments in plant-based alternatives, Tofurky’s news is a welcome bright spot for the plant-based meat movement. Not only is Morinaga Milk embracing plant-based investment, but according to its press release about the Tofurky acquisition, “one of the Company’s global business policies is to expand the plant-based foods business in North America.” That should be music to the ears of anyone rooting for plant-based products.
In the same way that Canon used to sell us gelatin print film but now sells us digital photography, it seems entirely possible that meat and dairy companies which currently sell mostly animal products in the future may focus on animal-free meats and milks. After all, Canon still sells us the same experience — capturing our memories — but in a far more efficient way. Similarly, meat, egg, and dairy companies could sell us the same experience of enjoying meat, eggs, and milk, but in a far more efficient, humane, and sustainable way.
Contemplate, for example, Elmhurst Dairy, which after nearly a century of selling cow’s milk has now switched entirely to selling plant-based milk. As well, Canadian dairy company Lactalis recently converted an entire dairy production facility to solely plant-based milk manufacturing. These are moves worth applauding and are illustrative of how companies can change their business models for the better.
This of course isn’t to suggest that partnering with animal ag companies is the only way for the plant-based movement to succeed. But at a time when many headlines about plant-based meat have been pretty gloomy, Tofurky’s acquisition demonstrates continued interest from the biggest players in the food industry to keep expanding the market for plant-based meats. All of us who’d like to see humanity slash its reliance on animals for food should welcome that.
I’m now going to finish my Tofurky deli slice sandwich. In fact, I think I need to go pick up a few more packs of their black peppered pastrami right now.
Paul Shapiro is the CEO of The Better Meat Co., the author of the national bestseller Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World, a four-time TEDx speaker, and the host of the Business for Good Podcast.