Tofurky CEO: It’s not the role of lawmakers to choose winners or losers in any given industry
Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA after Tofurky and the Good Food Institute filed a lawsuit** vs Cole County, Missouri, prosecuting attorney Mark Richardson, Tofurky CEO Jaime Athos said:
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for the legislature to take up the cause of one particular industry or to choose winners or losers [in a given industry]. Consumers will vote with their taste buds and their pocket books.”
Asked about the labeling of Tofurky products - which don’t refer to ‘meat,’ but use terms such as chick’n, burgers, bacon, ham and sausages – all with modifiers such as ‘vegan,’ ‘vegetarian,’ or ‘plant-based,’ – he said: “For so many of us growing up with an animal-centric diet, meat products serve as a the best reference points for consumers, but it’s never been our intention to deceive consumers. Our value proposition is because we’re plant-based, that’s why consumers are buying our products.
“Why should consumers have to navigate a confusing new nomenclature that we’d all have to invent?”
‘We’ve progressed to the stage where they’re fighting us, so that gives us legitimacy’
Meat and dairy organizations “are highly motivated right now but the answer [to the growth of plant-based and cell-cultured alternatives] is to innovate instead of trying to suppress these nascent industries,” he claimed.
“It’s like the saying, ‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.’ I feel like we’ve progressed to the stage where they’re fighting us, so that gives us legitimacy. But what they are doing is not productive. This is a futile effort. Consumers know what they are buying and they are not confused.”
‘This is an absolutely premature effort on the part of the Missouri legislature’
As for clean meat, which is not yet on the market, he said, we don’t even yet know which agency will regulate it and what the required nomenclature will be: “This is an absolutely premature effort on the part of the Missouri legislature.”
He added: “I can guarantee that the cultured meat companies are not going to try to hide this stuff as 99c ground beef, they are going to yell from the rooftops that these products are cultured meat.”
‘Our fear is that even things like pictures of cows could be problematic…’
Asked whether Tofurky would even be directly impacted by the legislation, which Missouri Cattlemen’s Association executive vice president Mike Deering has said is really aimed at the cultured meat industry, he said:
“It’s worded in such a way that it’s up to interpretation and each county prosecutor has discretion. Our fear is that even things like pictures of cows could be problematic – even if you’re showing a cow that’s happy because it’s not been turned into hamburger. Even if their intent was not to target plant-based meat, I can tell you that I’m feeling impacted right now.”
‘We’re quietly growing like crazy behind the scenes’
Labeling woes aside, Tofurky – which has been around as a brand since 1995, while the company Turtle Island Foods, has been around since 1980 - is performing exceptionally well, said Athos, despite the fact that more recent market entrants such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have generated more column inches in recent years.
“We don’t tend to beat our chests and talk about our accomplishments as much as newer brands need to do to get their name out there, but we’re quietly growing like crazy behind the scenes… at 30% year on year.
“It’s a case of let’s go down the list of opportunities and decide what to say ‘no’ to. There are a ton of domestic opportunities, particularly in foodservice, with deli slices, sausages, shredded chick’n products, salad and pasta toppers, and big opportunities in college campuses in particular.
“But there are also big growth opportunities internationally, particularly in Australia and the UK. There’s so much demand for our products in those two markets alone that that alone could fill up our growth pipeline for the next year or so.”
Merchandising plant-based meat: ‘Tofurky shoppers are trained to go to the produce set’
Asked about merchandising in the retail environment, and whether Beyond Meat’s success in the meat case was likely to inspire other plant-based brands to seek placement there, he noted that the Tofurky brand is established in the produce set next to other chilled plant-based brands and that if it were to unilaterally move to the meat case, it could be a risky move.
“Tofurky shoppers are trained to go to the produce set and if they see that everyone else’s products are there but ours are not, they are not going to head to the meat department, they are going to think, 'Oh, they discontinued Tofurky.' So if we were to do this [move to the meat set], the products should all be merchandised together.”
That said, the bulk of Tofurky’s consumers are flexitarians, not committed vegans and vegetarians, he said, so there would definitely be the potential to reach a wider audience were the whole chilled plant-based meat segment to move into the meat department.
A more culinary approach…
Asked whether the brand was exploring novel proteins aside from wheat gluten as a core base for new products, he said that Tofurky was keeping abreast of developments, but added: “Wheat gluten is not a sexy new ingredient for sure, but it has the ability to create muscle stranded textures that other plant-based proteins don’t, without getting into exotic levels of processing.
“We use minimal processing and have a more culinary approach, although our R&D team has obviously developed a deep understanding of the functional properties of plant-based proteins over the years.”
Why Tofurky values its independence
Not surprisingly, given the brand’s impressive growth, Tofurky has been wooed by potential suitors, but values its independence, said Athos.
“The hope is that the smaller company has been purchased because it’s nimble, it has great ideas, an innovative spirit and a value system that resonates with consumers to a degree that the parent company doesn’t.
“But so often I’ve seen the influence go in the wrong direction. The founders leave quickly, the brand managers left in charge don’t have the same passion for the brand. The mission doesn’t resonate with them personally, and something really critical has been lost in that acquisition. That’s my fear and I’ve seen it happen enough times to think that it’s more the norm than the exception, and I want to avoid that.”
*Read Missouri statute S627 HERE.
*Read more about the Tofurky/GFI lawsuit HERE.