Justin Whitmore, Executive Vice President at Tyson, saw alternative proteins as an opportunity for the meat producing giant.
man in front of plants
Credit: Galdones Photography

You'd think that the man overseeing Tyson's foray into plant-based meats would have grown up on tofu, or at least dabbled in vegetarianism. But Justin Whitmore, Executive Vice President at Tyson, swears he never tried a single veggie burger until 2013, when a spreadsheet sent him to the grocery store.

Then a sustainability management consultant for large food and consumer product companies, Whitmore was looking over research on consumer eating trends. "I saw a blip in demand for plant-based meats in some Western markets that far outstripped anything I'd seen before," he says. But what really struck him is that it wasn't a surge among vegetarians, but in meat eaters open to alternative proteins.

Curious, he tried a few plant-based patties. Their lackluster taste sparked an aha! moment: if concerns about health and the environment were driving omnivores to look for plant-based protein sources, only to be turned off by their flavor and higher price, improving both of those factors could be one of the most exciting opportunities he'd ever come across.

That sense of possibility brought him to Tyson, the world's second-biggest meat processor—first as the company's chief strategy and sustainability officer and then as head of its venture-capital alternative protein business. Under Whitmore's leadership, Tyson acquired stakes in Beyond Meat, MycoTechnology and cell-based meat pioneers Memphis Meats and Future Meat—investments that raised eyebrows within the food world. That a meat giant all about chicken, beef and pork would seek alternatives to its own core business was, to put it mildly, extraordinary. (Tyson later agreed to divest from Beyond Meat after announcing its own line of plant-based meats.)

Last June, Whitmore led the rollout of Tyson's Raised & Rooted nuggets made entirely from plants, as well as several blended items (like burgers and Aidells Whole Blends sausages) that combine animal and pea proteins. Tyson's massive size translates into massive influence: one year after launching, the brands can already be found in 8,000 supermarkets and restaurants nationwide, with more to come across North America and Europe.

According to the Good Food Institute, three-quarters of the Earth's agricultural land is devoted to raising animals, but meat only represents one-sixth of our food. Poultry and livestock production also have a major environmental impact—accounting for 15% of total human--caused greenhouse gas emissions globally. With a population of 10 billion around the corner, industrial producers like Tyson can't keep operating the way they have without overwhelming the planet. They, too, must embrace a new vision of sustainability—and protein. Whitmore has been instrumental in showing the behemoth the way. "We shouldn't look at sustainability as either a plant or animal protein issue," he says. "Sustainably feeding nearly 2 billion more people in the next 30 years requires more protein from more sources, using new and established methods."

This story originally appeared in EatingWell Magazine July/August 2020.