Under the deal, which comes just over two years after Pinnacle Foods acquired fellow plant-based protein brand Gardein and 16 months after Monde Nissin acquired Quorn, Lightlife management will continue to lead the Massachusetts-based business, which will operate as a subsidiary of Ontario-based Maple Leaf.
"Expanding into the fast growing plant-based proteins market is one of Maple Leaf's strategic growth platforms and supports our commitment to become a leader in sustainability," said Maple Leaf president and CEO Michael McCain. "Consumers are increasingly looking to diversify their protein consumption, including plant-based options.
"The acquisition of Lightlife provides Maple Leaf with a leading market position and brand in the United States in a category that is outpacing growth in the broader packaged foods sector. We will expand our presence through investment in brand building, innovation and leveraging our respective capabilities."
Unlike Beyond Meat, which started life in the frozen aisle and has only recently moved into the refrigerator with the development of the 'Beyond Burger,' most of Lightlife's products - tempeh, hot dogs, breakfast foods and burgers - are merchandised in the chilled food aisle (it has 38% market share in the US refrigerated plant proteins market).
A strategic focus on plant proteins
Lightlife, which was founded by Chia Collins and Michael Cohen in 1979, notched up sales of c.$40m in 2016 and now employs around 100 people at its facility in Turners Falls, said CEO Roy Lubetkin, who took the helm at Lightlife in September 2013 after ConAgra Foods sold the business to private equity firm Brynwood Partners.
"Maple Leaf Foods has an industry leading commitment to sustainable protein, including a strategic focus on plant proteins, and being part of this incredible organization will enable the continued growth of our brands."
According to Mississauga, Ontario-based Maple Leaf - which is best-known for prepared meats, lunch kits and snacks, fresh pork and poultry products - the US market for plant-based proteins is estimated at $600m, with the refrigerated category representing over $110m and delivering double-digit annual growth.
A hamburger tonight and a veggie burger tomorrow night
Speaking to analysts on the Maple Leaf's Q$ earnings call, McCain said: "Of our three strategic growth platforms, alternative protein is where we're currently least developed. This acquisition provides us an outstanding platform in a fast-growing, profitable market segment.
"This transaction is not about synergies, it's about growth... Driving this is a continued shift towards balancing meat consumption with non-meat proteins... the refrigerated plant protein segment in the United States... is growing at a clip of around 11%."
Asked about the target consumer for Lightlife products, he said: "The most significant growth will come from a consumer base that would be best described as flexitarians. And they actually love their meat choices, but they want to expand their protein consumption in a more balanced way... So they would eat a hamburger tonight and a veggie burger tomorrow night."
The plant-based prize
While just 7% of Americans identify themselves as vegetarian, more than a third of shoppers (36%) buy meat alternatives according to Mintel, suggesting the category is appealing to a far broader demographic, Lubetkin told FoodNavigator-USA in early 2015 after the Lightlife brand had undergone an image overhaul.
"The biggest barriers to growth [in the meat-free category] are taste and lack of awareness, so we are all about making it healthy, making it tasty and making it easy. Not all meat alternatives are the same, and we’ve done a lot of work on demo-ing and sampling in stores and getting people to actually try the products, and that’s when we get the a-ha moment, whether it’s from a retail buyer or a consumer.”
Just another protein option
While health, sustainability and animal welfare are obvious selling points for plant-based foods, brands such as Lightlife and Beyond Meat have been trying to get consumers to stop thinking about their products as ‘alternatives’ to the ‘real deal’,' and instead just another protein option.
Beyond Meat, for example, says its products are just part of the broader ‘protein’ set, while Lightlife has developed a series of ‘manifesto’ videos , which feature the strapline 'Meat without the middleman'.
“They say we can’t be meat, because we’re made from plants,” said the first in the series. “But every meat on earth is made from plants… This meat [an actor points to a cow] is made from grass… This meat [chicken] is made from corn…
“Technically, we’re not allowed to call ourselves meat, yet… thanks, meatists… but just because we didn’t use an animal to turn plants into thick, juicy, center of the plate mouthwatering protein does not mean we are not meat…”
A second video, ‘Firing the Pig,’ showed a pig being ‘fired’ from a farm as the farmer no longer needs his services due to Lightlife’s ‘plant meat’.
The deal is expected to close in March.