There is too much at stake for anything containing animal products to co-opt the plant-based label and all the good it stands for.
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Tyson Foods, one of the world’s largest food companies, has launched what it calls a “plant-based” product line. But while the news is welcome, it isn’t actually “plant-based.”
Raised & Rooted, Tyson’s new brand offering alternative protein products, includes a pea-based nugget that contains egg (and possibly milk). Despite this, the company has referred to it as “100 percent plant-based” in a press release and describes it as “plant-based” on its website.
A global meat company branching out to vegetarian nuggets is certainly a step in the right direction.
First and foremost, it means less meat — which means less animal suffering on factory farms, fewer carbon emissions and healthier food on our plates. Meat is still the status quo for Americans — in fact, meat consumption is expected to rise in the next few years, both here and around the world. It’s encouraging, therefore, that companies such as Tyson are starting to invest and diversify into this plant-forward world.
It also helps bring vegetarian food further away from the fringes. When a company with such massive heft and investment powers decides it’s a worthwhile space to move into, it sends out a statement that cutting back on animal products is the norm. The ripple effect of this has the potential to be significant, as it can encourage other companies to move into this market.
It also enables Tyson to use its reach for good. If meat-eaters pick up vegetarian nuggets instead of chicken ones, it’s more likely they will begin to transition away from meat and to a more plant-based diet. Brands that omnivores trust and recognize are uniquely positioned to shift people’s eating habits.
But calling vegetarian nuggets “100 percent plant-based” is blatantly misleading. Tyson has taken the phrase “plant-based” — which means “contains only plants” — and co-opted it to mean “contains plants.” This is much more than just a matter of semantics or identity politics.
Tyson’s deceptive use of “plant-based” risks causing confusion where clear lines have been drawn. It’s now widely understood that “plant-based” foods are vegan — meaning foods that come from plants and don’t contain animal ingredients such as meat, eggs or dairy. This is how consumers understand and navigate what they’re eating, and how brands have historically marketed their vegan products.
This could lead to someone who follows a strict vegan diet mistaking the nuggets for vegan, and unwittingly consuming eggs (or dairy) — which is why the meaning of the label of “plant-based” must be upheld. Confusing labeling does a disservice to existing brands that clearly label their plant-based products as such.
Moreover, calling products containing egg (and potentially dairy) “plant-based” is a type of green-and-humane washing. Plant-based is the gold standard — it communicates to customers that their food is more environmentally sustainable, cruelty-free and largely detached from the many problems associated with factory farming. To use these credentials incorrectly is to mislead customers into thinking a product is more ethical and better for the planet and for human health than it really is. It dilutes the important features that differentiate true plant-based foods from products containing ingredients derived from animals.
Other companies may be using the label “plant-based” inappropriately, but it’s especially problematic that Tyson is using the label in this way. The company has made admirable steps in diversifying its offerings with plant-based proteins, but it’s obviously far more entrenched in conventional animal agriculture and all the problems that come with it than other brands with vegetarian or vegan products.
Consider that many egg factory farms in the U.S. house hens in crammed, stressful environments. On average, each caged laying hen has only 67 square inches of cage space. Research has found that the production of eggs accounts for a larger proportion of greenhouse gas emissions than fruit, vegetables or legumes. The plant-based movement has science on its side: Eating more plant-based foods is widely accepted among scientists as one of the most impactful ways to help mitigate the worst effects of climate change. And then there’s the poultry industry’s historical reliance on antibiotics to consider, too.
Tyson’s decision to label one of its food products as “plant-based” without qualifying it is also quite ironic, given that plant-based companies in states across the U.S. are battling against legislation preventing them from using words such as “burger” and “sausage” to describe their vegan foods. The meat and dairy industry say using “burger” and “cheese” on plant-based food packaging misrepresents their products, and causes confusion among customers, despite no evidence to support the claim. In fact, there’s evidence to the contrary. Similar legislation is being considered in the E.U.
Consumers and brands alike are, for the large part, united on what ingredients do and do not constitute the plant-based label — not least because its benefits have been made extremely clear. There is too much at stake for anything containing animal products to co-opt the plant-based label and all the good it stands for.