While some in the plant-based meat business say their mission is to take business away from conventional meat, Planterra Foods CEO Darcey Macken said she sees it very differently.
She quickly followed that statement up with a disclaimer. Her feeling has nothing to do with Planterra's corporate owner: JBS, the world's largest meat company. Planterra's products are a choice for consumers to make, Macken said, and the company is not there to make declarations to consumers about what they should and should not be eating.
"Our attitude in general as a company is that we want to feed future generations. That's our mission as a company,"
Macken said. "And that's our purpose. It's about future generations. It's about reimagining food sources and ecosystem, sustainability and agriculture. And agriculture is everything — that's plants and it's animals. And it's about kids, it's about nutrition, it's about educating. And I think that includes animals."
JBS is the latest Big Meat player to jump into the plant-based protein business. It joins Tyson, which came into the category last year with its Raised & Rooted brand, Hormel with its Happy Little Plants brand, and Maple Leaf Foods, which acquired plant-based brands Lightlife Foods and Field Roast Grain Meat — now both under its Greenleaf Foods division — in 2017.
Plant-based meat has shown extraordinary growth, even before the coronavirus pandemic. According to statistics from SPINS and The Good Food Institute, dollar sales of plant-based meat grew 38% from 2017 to 2019. Since March, according to Nielsen statistics, sales have at least doubled nearly every month compared to a year ago.
"It's the speed of the growth that excites people, which is why Tyson and JBS and all these other people are now playing in this space," said Nick Fereday, executive director of food and consumer trends at Rabobank.
Macken said that she wasn't sure how Planterra's ownership and backing might be seen by the larger food industry, especially because other companies in the plant-based space are loud about their opposition to the meat industry. JBS's name and backing aren't all over Planterra's products or website, but they aren't hidden either. Macken said the reaction has been good, especially from suppliers and retail customers.
"Especially in this world of startups, people want stability," she said. "I think they just see it as strong stability."
How it all began
Macken said Planterra Foods was born out of JBS' innovation team. Last year, she said, the Brazil-based company was looking at where there was space for new product development.
A veteran of the CPG world who has worked with Noosa Yoghurt and Kellogg, Macken said she first talked to JBS about the new business last fall. JBS wanted to start a brand new stand-alone U.S. business unit to develop plant-based products, and recruited Macken to do it.
JBS' vision for Planterra was clear from the beginning, Macken said.
"We want to win in the space because people are going to win within plant based. It is the future of protein," she said. "We want it to be JBS as well because they see it as an addition to protein. It's an additional choice. And it's not something that's subtracting from their current business."
At the helm of Planterra, Macken spent the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020 gearing up for the retail and foodservice launches of its first product: Ozo, a plant-based burger and grounds. The launch date was planned for spring 2020, and was considerably slowed by the pandemic.
The brand is now in about 800 stores nationwide and available online for direct-to-consumer ordering. Ozo also became available in foodservice last month, with burgers, ground meat, nuggets and breakfast sausage.
"We want to win in the space because people are going to win within plant based. It is the future of protein. We want it to be JBS as well because they see it as an addition to protein. It's an additional choice. And it's not something that's subtracting from their current business."
CEO, Planterra Foods
Since the plant-based meat market is getting relatively crowded, newer entrants need to have something to differentiate themselves from the rest. Ozo's special ingredient is made from fermented shiitake mushrooms to provide both taste and a digestion aid for the pea protein based burger.
"It wasn't just about the ingredient," Macken said. "It had to be about the taste, right? And the clean label, and we're healthier, and we have less fat and less calories."
Macken said sales have been good, especially given the timing of the launch. Because they have the backing of JBS, there haven't been so many hangups with getting products noticed and on shelves, she said. Retailers have been very encouraged, she said.
"They're really, really happy with the way it's jumping off the shelf," she said. "It's very easy to understand. People are getting it. And our repeat rate is actually higher than those in the category, with people going back for our brand faster, which tells you, obviously, that they enjoy the food. So exactly what we want to see. So really, just the miss[ed target] is just the actual number of customers."
The (plant-based) future
Since Planterra runs as its own business unit, Macken isn't privy to how JBS is doing through the pandemic. However, there was a recent company presentation about the full meat segment — both conventional and plant-based. Meat sales are through the roof, she said, and plant-based is working to drive some of those sales.
"Plant-based has to do with different attitudes towards food," Macken said. "I think those that did come into the category and have never done it before have stayed and just made it part of their repertoire, which is fantastic," Macken said. "So I think it's a winner for both meat and plant-based."
Macken is in contact with JBS leadership in Brazil every week, with an hour-long video chat once a month. She said that the plant-based sector is very important to the world's largest meat company.
"It's all about innovation, so they push us," Macken said.
She said that the discussions with JBS leadership are not antagonistic or full of orders and directions. They're more discussions about the business and what's happening. Macken said they are very interested and ask how they can help, what JBS as a whole can do, and where the plant-based sector is going next. JBS recently purchased a manufacturing plant for Planterra in Cincinnati. It is expected to be fully operational in 2021.
With the new plant, Planterra is seeing an increase in both capacity and capabilities. The company is launching several of the products it sells at foodservice in grocery retail today. These include Italian Style Meatballs, with zesty spices and 16 grams of protein; and two varieties of Ozo Breakfast Sausages: Original and Maple flavors.
Macken said JBS understands that some consumers want plant-based products, and Planterra's parent company is a strong supporter. This feeling goes throughout the company, she said, with JBS talking up Planterra to everyone, even grocery retail customers.
"It's not about telling people that animals are bad. This is just truly that we understand it," Macken said. "Look at the trends in protein. In the future, [it] just can't all come from animals. It has to come from different sources of protein."