Is Tyson Foods “Less Meat” (But Not “Meatless”) Good for the Animals?

Posted in: Animal Rights

Tyson Foods is entering the meat reduction market. It previously invested in the plant-based company “Beyond Meat” and now intends to sell its own similar products. I consider Tyson’s decision to produce plant-based nuggets below. A seemingly more difficult question arises when we consider Tyson’s new blended products, including, reportedly, a sausage and meatball item and a blended burger, both containing meat and plants. Do such products help or hinder the cause of animal protection?

The Pro Side of Blended

To defend blended products, one can point to the quantity of animal flesh in a mixed beef and plant burger compared to a pure beef burger. The latter demands the slaughter of more animals than the former, and more slaughter is unambiguously a bad thing. In this way of thinking, a blended burger is a bit like a blended meal.

Animals do better as a group if you prepare and eat only half of a beef burger and a salad each day for lunch than if you prepare and eat a whole beef burger every day instead. Killing one animal is bad, of course, but it is better than killing two. And over time, blended products could dilute the quantity of animal flesh by enough to spare a considerable number of animals.

By analogy, consider the child of an alcoholic who wants to reduce her father’s consumption of alcohol. Replacing part of each bottle of whiskey or vodka with water will dilute the intoxicating substance. Replacing some cow flesh in a burger with corn will have the same effect. What could be wrong with that?

The Con Side of Blended

Why would anyone who favors animal protection oppose Tyson’s introduction of “blended products”? One answer is that some ethical vegans reject any product that contains animal ingredients. It might be useful here to distinguish between two types of ethical vegans: one would never use a blended product and one believes the introduction of a blended product—whether or not he uses it—represents a negative development. A vegan wouldn’t eat a blended burger because it contains meat; he might, however, nonetheless welcome the burger’s availability for people who would otherwise consume the “whole hog.” For purposes of exploring the dark side of blended meat, I will confine the discussion to the second kind of ethical vegan: does she have practical arguments to level against these products?

One practical argument is that rather than simply satisfy a static level of meat demand with less meat, such products have an impact on people’s behavior going forward. A person who might have been considering becoming vegan could feel more comfortable about continuing to eat meat if the meat contains plant-based ingredients as well. And someone who planned to seriously cut down on animal product consumption could incorrectly assume that the blended versions contain less meat than they do. It could be like those products that say “and now 30% less sugar!” Making people feel proud of minimal steps could result in a reduced incentive to do anything else.

A Response to the Con Side

On the other hand, taking a small step can sometimes lead a person to consider taking bigger steps in the same direction. We tend to watch our own behavior for clues about what we think, even though we feel we have direct access to our thoughts. If we see ourselves doing something for the environment, we infer that we care about the environment and perhaps go further in the same direction. Sometimes called the “foot in the door” technique, a salesman is more likely to get you to make a big purchase if he first gets you to open your door, talk with him, and make a small purchase. Someone who eats blended meat might accordingly think of himself as a person who cares about reducing animal death and suffering in the world. In keeping with that self-image, he might go on to consume fewer and fewer blended burgers over time, favoring instead entirely vegan alternatives.

It is difficult to know which of these phenomena will describe the future of blended meat. Will people eat blended burgers and feel morally licensed to continue to consume lots of animal products? Or will blended burgers become a gateway to fewer and then eventually maybe no animal ingredients at all? If both phenomena seem likely, as they do, which will be the larger impact?

Meanwhile, opponents of blended meat might point out that Tyson is unlikely to offer a product that will lead people to turn away from all animal flesh. Tyson, after all, sells animal flesh and thus has an interest in its continuing appeal to the consumer.

Still, Tyson is mainly interested in making money. If people prove to be most attracted to eating plant-based products, then Tyson will over time increase its plant-based offerings and correspondingly decrease its animal-based ones. Though the company might be selling meat at the moment, it may not be as invested in people’s love of meat as it is invested in people’s desire to spend their money on Tyson products. Plant-based ingredients tend to be cheaper than animal-based ingredients too, so the move away from meat could actually save money and increase Tyson’s profit margin. Therefore, we needn’t be suspicious of blended and other less-meat products.

Posing the Same Question for “Plant-based” Products

Tyson’s introduction of blended products is thus difficult to evaluate. A lot depends on what people do in response to different scenarios. What may be easier to assess is the harmful effect of Tyson’s plant-based line of products. Why harmful? The answer has as much to do with what Tyson calls its products as with what they are.

When people say “plant-based,” they tend to mean vegan or containing no animal ingredients. It did not have to be that way, of course. I could make the argument that a ham sandwich is “plant-based,” because the bread, lettuce, and tomato are all made of plants. To say that something is “based” in X does not mean that there is nothing there except X. Starting from first principles, one might use the phrase “plant exclusive” to mean vegan and “plant-based” to mean “containing a decent amount of plant matter.”

But we are not starting from first principles. People have for some time been using “plant-based” to refer to items that contain no animal ingredients. In fact, debate rages between ethical vegans and other kinds of vegans about whether the latter should refer to themselves as “plant-based” to signify their doing what they do for non-animal-rights/welfare reasons.  The one assumption, though, has been that “plant-based” means “no animals,” and the debate was simply about one’s reasons for making this choice. When Tyson walks into this world of “plant-based” talk and offers its own “plant-based” options, it misleads people who want to avoid all animal products and makes them think the Tyson food satisfies their vegan criterion. In other words, it induces people who want to buy—and believe they are buying—one thing into buying something else that they affirmatively wish to avoid.

This complaint, coming from a vegan, is somewhat ironic, because the meat industry has said the same thing of vegan and plant-based meat products. For example, Missouri has gone so far as to pass legislation that appears to prohibit the use of words like “meat” and “burgers” in labeling vegan products (in the form of “chik’n strips” or “veggie burgers”). The assumption is that people who wish to buy animal meat are in danger of being fooled into purchasing the wrong product by labeling that suggests a consumer will find “meat” inside the package.

Can we distinguish the two claims, other than by saying that wanting vegan products is more important than wanting non-vegan products? First, yes. When people see a label that indicates that “vegan meat” or “chik’n” or “veggie burgers” are inside, everyone understands that they are not getting animal meat, chicken, or beef burgers. Only a drunk person who doesn’t know how to spell will get this wrong. “Plant-based,” on the other hand, really will make people who want vegan food think that they have found what they’re looking for, absent a warning like “also-animal-based.”

In addition, it is arguably more important to be accurate in helping people avoid what they wish to avoid than it is to be accurate in helping people buy what they mean to buy. Even the staunchest meat eaters do eat plant matter on occasion, so they will not be horrified to learn that they just ate something made of plants. No human in a modern society subsists entirely on flesh. But many vegans really will be horrified to learn that they ate something containing dairy or eggs and deserve fair warning of that. And more importantly, the mammals and birds who suffer so much to create dairy and eggs deserve to be left alone. That is why ethical vegans stay away from animal products, and that is why “plant-based” should remain—as it has been—a label attached to vegan consumer items.

One could argue in response that while vegans may be upset to learn that they have eaten animal products, our concern should be with minimizing animal suffering and death rather than with helping vegans remain animal-free. Vegans are a small minority of the population, and the availability of Tyson “plant-based” foods will likely, on the whole, reduce the number of animals tortured killed to satisfy consumer demand. Vegans, moreover, are accustomed to reading ingredients and will quickly figure out that Tyson foods are not vegan. If Tyson is willing to provide such foods only if they contain some animal ingredients, it still may be doing a service for the animals.

Once again, it is difficult to know what the impact of Tyson’s not-quite-“plant-based” items will be. The one thing that seems clear is that demand for animal-free food has increased. The reasons may have to do with health, the environment, or compassion for animals. Since Tyson is certainly not interested in sparing animals death and suffering, we can see its new products as an indicator of positive developments. Whether Tyson’s foods are good or bad for animals remains to be seen. Requiring accuracy in labeling for vegans, though, seems harmless to animals, which is more than you can say for the range of products that Tyson sells.

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