An El Segundo-based startup, backed by Twitter’s founders and Bill Gates, seeks to fight global hunger and climate change by reinventing meat
Most days after middle school, Ethan Brown walked down Wisconsin Avenue in Washington D.C. and ate a Double-R burger from Roy Rogers. The Double-R is an East Coast institution, a quarter-pound beef patty topped with melted cheddar and pillowy slices of deli ham all sandwiched in a Kaiser roll. As Brown stood in line, he pictured the burger he was about to order. “Okay, well there’s the cow, and there’s the milk that comes from the cow,” he thought to himself. The 13-year-old started to mentally dissect his meal, seeing beyond the processed slices to the real animals embodied in each slab of meat, and it weighed on his conscience.
Soon thereafter, he smelled the leather of his shoes after basketball practice and had another realization. “Why am I wearing their skin?” he wondered.
These epiphanies led Brown to make a decision that would set the course of his life. He gave up meat and became a dedicated vegan by the age of 17.
Twenty-five years later, Brown, now 42, is at the forefront of what some of the world’s more influential thinkers believe is a food revolution.
In an unassuming brick warehouse on Main Street in El Segundo, Brown and Brent Taylor, a 33-year-old Manhattan Beach native who surfs most mornings before work, are at the helm of a burgeoning startup. They are backed by Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Twitter founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams in the creation of something that Gates has said gives him optimism for the future of food on our planet.
Brown and Taylor have created a new kind of chicken. It’s called Beyond Meat, and it’s a plant-based chicken strip made of soy and peas that is regarded in the fledgling “meat analog” industry — better known as mock meat, a term Brown takes issue with — as having achieved something no other such product has managed to do. Beyond Meat not only tastes like chicken; it looks, tears, and feels like chicken.
“For people who are actually repulsed by meat, they’re not going to like this,” Stone told Fast Company magazine. “It feels fatty and muscly and like it’s not good for you when you’re chewing it. For a long-time vegan, it’s a little bit freaky.”
One of the most prominent food writers in America today, the New York Times’ Mark Bittman, wrote that he was “badly fooled” in a Beyond Meat taste test. But in a good way.
“When you take Brown’s product, cut it up and combine it with, say, chopped tomato and lettuce and mayonnaise with some seasoning in it, and wrap it in a burrito, you won’t know the difference between that and chicken,” Bittman wrote. “I didn’t, at least, and this is the kind of thing I do for a living.”
“[Beyond Meat] has that striation and fibrous texture, that familiarness, almost like a muscle being torn apart,” said Brown.
A new kind of chicken is no small thing for the larger prospects of the world’s health.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last month sounded a call-to-arms in a report that outlined the devastating effects climate change is already having on food resources, coastal communities, and economic growth — and the more dire impact hastening climate change will likely have in the near future.
Livestock production is one of the main contributors to the greenhouse gases that are altering the world’s climate. And meat production, as Gates has noted, is both environmentally unsustainable and unlikely to keep pace with population growth.
“Meat consumption worldwide has doubled in the last 20 years, and it is expected to double again by 2050,” wrote Gates in a blog article titled “The Future of Food”. “Raising meat takes a great deal of land and water and has a substantial environmental impact. There’s no way to produce enough meat for 9 billion people. Yet we can’t ask everyone to become vegetarians. We need more options for producing meat without depleting our resources.”
The answer, Brown argues, is to move beyond meat. Gates and Beyond Meat’s other investors agree.
“Fifty-one percent of greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to livestock, more than automobiles, and more than home heating,” Brown said. “There’s a certain fatalism that people have around climate change and what’s going to happen, that there’s nothing we can do about it. But if you believe that number, then there’s a really easy solution – it’s three to four ounces at the center of your plate. It’s one of the easiest things you can do for climate change.”
Brown spent nearly two decades trying to change the world through other means. He worked in the clean energy sector, developing fuel cell technology intended to make cars burn cleaner. But as he later recalled, he’d attend industry conferences at which the daily topic would be reducing greenhouse gases, then at the end of the day everyone would sit down to dinner and eat steak. It always jarred him.
A few years ago, Brown encountered a Worldwatch Institute research paper that identified livestock as the biggest contributing factor to climate change. Brown, shaken by this claim, realized his work wasn’t the most urgent way to address what he believes is the most critical issue facing the planet. So he left his job in search of the perfect plant-based substitute that would solve the meat quandary.
Brown tested abysmal fake meat products from around the world. Nothing had the bite and chew of real meat. Finally, he came across a research paper by Dr. Fu-Hung Hsieh, a food science professor at the University of Missouri who had made a breakthrough.
After ten years of trial and error, Dr. Hsieh and his team had perfected the fibrous texture of their vegan chicken. Their final product was practically indistinguishable from chicken breast. With Hsieh bringing the science and Brown, the entrepreneurship, a game-changing chicken substitute was hatched. Brown partnered with Taylor, an agribusiness expert, in 2011, and the duo founded Beyond Meat.
“Think about what meat is,” said Brown, who serves as president and CEO. “Meat is amino acids, water, a little bit of minerals, a little carbohydrates and fat. We can assemble all those things the same way with plant protein as they’re assembled in animal form.”
“It doesn’t taste much like chicken, but since most white meat chicken doesn’t taste like much anyway, that’s hardly a problem,” wrote Bittman. “Both are about texture, chew and the ingredients you put on them or combine with them.”
“At the end of the day, it’s all white stuff,” Brown said. “White stuff with bread on it. Why does it matter whether it’s their white stuff or our white stuff?”
Beyond Meat’s extrusion process is not that dissimilar to a hen laying an egg. A mixture of non-genetically modified soy and yellow pea protein powders, amaranth, carrot and soy fiber, and spices is mixed with water and run through an extruder that applies heating, cooling, and pressure to the proteins at different points. The concoction is then pushed through a specially cut die, extruding the mixture in five rows, and the resulting fleshy ribbons are torn off and collected by hand.
The result? Completely plant-based strips that mimic the inimitable bite and appearance of chicken breast flesh.
“It was a 10-year overnight success,” said Taylor, who serves as vice president of corporate development.
“These guys are coming at the meat analogue industry not as a novelty kind of thing or hippy dippy,” said Stone in an interview with Fast Company. “They were coming at it from this big science, super practical, scalable angle. They were saying, ‘We want to get into the multi-billion-dollar meat industry with a plant-based meat.'”
Like their investors, Brown and Taylor are mission-oriented. “There has to be a better way to feed the planet and people’s needs for protein,” Taylor said.
Taylor, a Mira Costa High School and UCLA alumnus, met Brown in late 2010 when he was working as a consultant for venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.
“We worked together for about six months on the phone and for some reason I never decided to look at his picture, so I had this totally different image of him,” Brown said. “He has this surfer talk to him, once you get to know him — all these surfer terms and everything. So when I finally met him, I was expecting long hair. Here this clean-cut businessman shows up.”
Taylor performed the due diligence research for the renowned Silicon Valley venture capital firm. But Beyond Meat’s global potential drew Taylor to go full-time with Brown. “What I found interesting about the Beyond Meat technology was its global applications,” Taylor said. “I had done a lot of work internationally in markets in India, Turkey, Costa Rica, and I witnessed a huge change that was emerging within meat consumption. That’s why I was so excited about it — its essential applicability in marketplaces where people are consuming meat at a rapid pace.”
Beyond Meat is an easy sell to vegans and vegetarians, but Brown and Taylor want to make their product relevant to meat eaters. Brown’s wife eats meat, and Taylor is a “meat reducer” — he still eats meat on a somewhat regular basis, but does so conscientiously.
“We really do think of ourselves as a meat company, but we’re using all plant-based inputs,” said Taylor. “We like to celebrate meat and we’d like to be able to provide people the benefits of eating meat in an environment they normally do, but not have to make the sacrifices on taste and texture in the general dishes that they love.”
Many consumers shun mock meat products because they lack the familiar texture and mouthfeel of meat. Tofu, seitan, and tempeh have long been the holy trinity of meat analogues for many vegans and vegetarians, but despite their longstanding tenure, they are still relegated to the dark corners of the supermarket, never showcased in shiny glass cases like cuts of animal meat. Beyond Meat is determined to shed the stigmas associated with meat substitutes by carving a new niche in the meat aisle.
“We’re trying to literally recreate meat,” Brown said.
Brown, a tall, robust father of two, has been a vegan for 25 years. At a recent lunch at the Beyond Meat headquarters, he picked up a prepared chicken-free strip and started to pull it apart.
“I’ve had three servings of this today already,” he said.
“He eats it for breakfast,” said Taylor, perhaps only partly in jest.
“It’s so good and so satiating,” Brown said. “Instead of coming out of a workout and having another boring protein shake or if you’re a meat eater, having another piece of chicken, this is an awesome alternative.” Brown continues to toy with the strip, exposing the fibrous strings of flesh. “This is what the madness is all about. This is what the scientific innovation is.”
The little piece of soy and peas he holds in his hand has attracted some of the most influential investors in the world.
“The great thing about [our investors] is they think without boundaries,” says Taylor. “It was so humbling the first time we met with Bill Gates because he has just so much to give. He’s hoping to address the challenges of where people would get their protein and he sees Beyond Meat as one of the potential solutions for that.”
“They’re not in this for the cash,” said Brown. “Gates is interested in us because of his global interests on nutrition and human health. Biz and Ev are in it for those reasons as well, but also for sustainability.”
The Beyond Meat founders also share a love for agriculture. Taylor, who speaks with bounce and wears almost constant ear-to-ear smile, spent several summers as a child on a soy and corn farm in Iowa. “It was always been really special to me and it’s where my initial interests in food and agriculture arose as well,” said Taylor.
Brown also spent some of his formative years on a farm. As a kid, he wanted to be a veterinarian after reading James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small. During summers and weekends, Brown went to his family farm in rural Maryland where his father, a philosophy professor at the University of Maryland, ran a hundred-plus Holstein cattle operation. The animals were treated well, but, at the end of the day, they were still production animals. The family had one brown Guernsey cow to which Brown paid extra attention simply due to her different color from the myriad black and white Holstein cows. The Guernsey suffered an accidental slip and, incapacitated, was no longer of use to the farm. She was destroyed.
Young Brown was left perplexed by this double standard in the treatment of urban pets and farm animals. “Why would a dog be able to live a life of privilege based on superficial differences?” he asked himself.
Questions about humankind’s use of animals would linger with Brown. “If we had something that was really meat from plants, why would anyone want to have to kill an animal or harm the environment or harm their own health?”
The answer may lie in the success of Beyond Meat, already available nationwide in Sprouts and Whole Foods markets. Vons and Safeway will stock Beyond Meat this May, and Target in September. For now, the company’s current product line includes the soy and pea-based Chicken-Free Strips and pea-based Beef-Free Crumbles, which are soy-free and resemble ground beef. Next iterations of the product may include lupin, camelina, and mustard seed as potential protein sources.
“I’ve been with this product now for so long, and I still am just fascinated by this,” Brown said. “I keep looking at it while I’m talking to you, like, why isn’t that meat?”
“Fine, it’s not from a chicken,” he added. “But it has the elements of it – the texture, the appearance, the protein. It has the water, it has the carbohydrates. It doesn’t have all the minerals but that’s not anything that can’t be fixed. To me, it’s meat.”
January 24, 2015
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