Environment

How Food Entrepreneurs Are Saving the Planet, According to the CEO of Tofurky

'There's a lot of interest in bigger companies acquiring these smaller innovators like Tofurky. I see that as a really good sign,' says Jaime Athos.
How Food Entrepreneurs Are Saving the Planet, According to the CEO of Tofurky
Image credit: Courtesy Tofurky
Jaime Athos
Entrepreneur Staff
News Director
13 min read

Food choices matter way more than you think. Researchers have concluded that one of the greatest choices an individual can make to benefit the environment is cutting down on their consumption of meat.

Wait, don't go!

Individuals don't have to go full-on vegan or vegetarian for the environment to benefit. If people on a large scale adopt a so-called flexitarian diet, where you don't eat meat most of the time, global greenhouse gas emissions could be cut by more than half, according to a study published in Nature.

There's good and bad news. While vegan and vegetarian rates in the U.S. remain low, at 3 percent and 6 percent, respectively, consumers are buying more and more plant-based products, such as milks and cheeses made of nuts and imitation meat. According to Nielsen, "As of 2017, 19.5 percent of food and beverage dollars came from products that met a plant-based diet." This trend shows no sign of slowing down either.

Related: With $72 Million in Funding, the Entrepreneur Behind Beyond Meat Pursues Innovation Over Profit

One of the earliest, and now one of the largest, proponents of plant-based alternatives is Tofurky, founded in 1980. Entrepreneur spoke with the company's CEO, Jaime Athos, about food choices, the environment and how entrepreneurs are making a difference.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Where we are now in terms of sustainability in the food industry?

What I'm seeing that I find very heartening is a huge amount of interest on the consumer side in issues of sustainability, and ultimately, consumer interests and preferences drive so much of industry. But looking at the other side there's a dark cloud in that silver lining. The opportunity is so massive because we haven't really given these questions of sustainability the attention they deserved all along the way. We have a lot of catching up to do.

Is this increased awareness connected to more people gaining knowledge about the impact of our individual food choices on the environment?

That's a huge part of it. There wasn't a mainstream awareness of how profoundly important that question is. It's not just a question that confronts us in one big fell swoop like when you buy a car. You don't do that all the time and you can take the time to think about issues of sustainability with respect to that one purchase decision.

Food questions hit us all the time. It's so ever present. That's why the impact is so great. Consumers have to be consistent in how they are going to feed themselves. But it seems like there's more interest in people taking on that challenge and they're looking to manufacturers and grocery stores and everybody throughout the whole food supply chain to make a good decision so that it's easier for them to make decisions as well.

People are becoming increasingly aware of the damage of factory farming and the consumption of meat. People are taking different approaches, whether that's going vegetarian or vegan or just cutting down on meat. Do you see that as a growing trend?

To your first point there. What you described is absolutely the trend, which is that it's not necessarily so much a shift in these absolute definitions of vegetarian or vegan but it's sort of this kind of in-between state, this dynamic state where people are just making an effort to reduce their meat consumption. That has the potential to have a massive impact. There are so few of us vegans out there that increasing the percent of vegans, doubling the percent of vegans has a big impact, but nothing compared to getting a larger swath of our culture to make better decisions a little bit of the time. The economies of scale are so massive with omnivores that small changes in behavior really have huge potential upsides for society in terms of sustainability issues.

Maybe a person who's eating less meat once a week is suddenly eating less meat three or four times a week and they're doing it just because they like the alternative products like ours. That's been the goal. I've always liked Tofurky and I've loved some of the products that we've rolled out, but some of our competition is putting out good products too and that's great. The rising tide is lifting all these boats in terms of the company's growth but it's also just such a great time to be a vegan or vegan-interested consumer.

People are changing their eating habits, probably permanently. We're going to see the dairy case shrink a little bit and the dairy alternative case grow a little bit. We're going to see the meat case shrink a little bit. We're going to see the plant based set grow a little bit. Ultimately that's what has to happen. We need to have more shelf space because there are so many good products, so many new good companies coming out every day. There's no need for it to be a war for shelf space because the consumers are there for all those products. [Retailers] need to expand that shelf space.

In terms of global trends, do you see Americans' changing habits affecting other countries?

There is a huge risk because I think as countries become more westernized and adopt more Western types of diets, we're at such a high level of consumption of meat in our culture, if they're adopting our dietary patterns too, that's going to have huge impacts on global demand. 2017 was a huge year for meat production. Some of that is because, in spite of micro trends of people eating less meat on a day-to-day basis, there are also these macro trends of greater westernization and whatnot that overlay and to some degree cancel out those those improvements.

Let's talk about packaging and the actual materials around food.

I've definitely seen -- especially with the paperboard cardboard style of packaging -- huge improvements, and those are not new. Things that have less visibility at the consumer level tend to also have less attention at the manufacturer and supplier level too. When we hear a lot about straws in the media -- social media is a great amplifier for that -- suddenly everybody's thinking about that and talking about that and making changes. Little things have big impacts too. We don't always think about, "well, this carton that I got for frozen products, it's made out of paperboard so it must be recyclable, right?" A lot of times that's not true. A lot of times there are coatings on that paperboard that render it unrecyclable and ultimately these things end up contaminating the recycling stream and left in landfills instead of actually being recycled.

A lot of other companies are playing catch up and they're just taking a look at, "What are consumers focused on? How can we close the gap between what we're doing and consumer expectations?" That's awesome. There's the upside of a lot of consumer awareness is that they are ultimately driving these things and the more aware they are the more change they can drive.

Related: 12 Burning Questions for the Entrepreneur Trying to Get You to Eat Bugs

Can you talk about Tofurky's recent forays into this and what the challenges are for the company?

We've always been focused on social values. That's why we make the products that we make, because we have a concern for the environment and concern for animal welfare and of course for people's health as well. So a lot of effort has gone on here at Tofurky. We've been 100 percent post consumer recycled paperboard for a long time. I'd say all the expected things, Tofurky is doing already. But we're also trying to be innovative as well.

A real challenge that faces us and a lot of people who make perishable refrigerated products is the plastics. We all know that there are certain plastics that are biodegradable. Some plastics are recyclable also and if we had a more robust recycling system in this country, a lot more things would be possible. But for right now mixed plastics, which I think are recycling code number 7, there's really not a reliable kind of recycling system for those things and unfortunately perishable refrigerated foods require a high level of technical specification and this often comes by mixing different types of plastics.

It's to my great shame that we still use those. The tradeoff is that we're able to get longer shelf lives. So you can start to look at the sustainability economics of well, if I use this material that's non-recyclable what's the impact versus if I have to ship my product more frequently, what's the impact? On balance the net outcome is much better by using those higher technical spec materials, which ultimately end up in landfills and not recycled unfortunately.

What does the future hold and what are the solutions?

I'm not a plastics expert by any stretch but I do think this is to me a purely technical problem and a technical problem that probably does have a solution out there. Somebody is going to crack this.

What do you make of Kraft Heinz's goal to have more environmental packaging by 2025? Do you see that as kind of a realistic goal? What do you make of that kind of push from from this giant?

I absolutely love it. Precisely the actions that they're taking are what we need. Now you don't need somebody with the technical know-how but also the vision to tackle these questions because they would know there's a potential market for those solutions down the road. We've got big companies making a pledge pointing out that there's an opportunity here for smart plastics engineers. It's fantastic and I think that that's the natural role that big companies like that should play in this ecosystem of driving sustainable change. They bring those resources. They have access to a bigger megaphone. I applaud them for that.

The trends are going that people expect this from their food makers. As the trend goes on it's going to become financially imperative for them to make changes.

You're right. It comes back to consumer expectation. I don't know if you've tracked the plant-based company space that I operate in, but there's been a huge amount of acquisition activity recently. There's a lot of interest in bigger companies acquiring these smaller innovators like Tofurky. I see that as a really good sign. It's a response again to consumer expectations.

They're able to buy that innovative spirit. They're able to buy the vision that these smaller companies represent. The hope is that that inoculates those bigger companies and that they take on some of the vision and mission and values orientation that many of the smaller companies have. Sometimes that doesn't seem to be the case. But that's always my hope when I see these acquisitions is that somehow the smaller company influences the bigger one. As long as consumer pressure is out there, [companies] are absolutely going to make those changes. So I hope that we all continue to focus on issues like this as consumers. Those bigger companies have to wait for the consumers to demonstrate the financial upside of making virtuous choices.

Aside from cutting down meat -- that's a hard fight -- what is the next best thing for consumers to look out for if they're worried about sustainability?

Just knowing who they're doing business with is a really powerful thing. If we choose to buy the products from companies that authentically are seeking to do good then I think that's a good decision. We have that information at our fingertips. It can be overwhelming as we have a lot of things that we have to buy on a given day and there are a lot of decisions there, but we can at least educate ourselves about the majority of those and chip away at that. I remember being a kid and you'd sit there and read the cereal box as you ate the cereal. Now you can just pull your phone out and read about the cereal maker as you eat the cereal and maybe next time you buy a different type of cereal.

I don't think that you can necessarily fake being a virtuous company. You can't fake a real interest in sustainability. You have to live it because consumers are skeptical and they're savvy and social media amplifies every little thing that gets out there. You have to walk the walk if you're going to talk the talk.

Related: This Single Mother and First-Time Entrepreneur Overcame Many Naysayers, Building a Vegan Snack Brand Sold Nationally

Is there anything else consumers should be concerned about?

The huge thing that we could all be better at is with food waste. There's such a shocking amount of food waste from the field all the way through to the consumer. That alone, I think we all have something like a 30 to 40 percent opportunity right there to just limit our own personal contribution to food waste. Companies should be focused on that also.

Tofurky tries to find a productive use for our waste. We end up with a shocking amount, it's scandalous almost, like 2,700 pounds of food waste per week. We send it to a local composting facility and it ends up being a soil amendment for all the orchards and vineyards that we have in our area. It's waste, but at least we're doing our utmost to do something good with it instead of have it just fill up our landfills.

Is there anything that Tofurky is working on that you're particularly excited about within the next year?

The big focus has been on capacity and efficiency. It's been amazing to see this increasing demand for products like ours. But keeping pace with that is is a full-time job for us right now. So it's increasing capacity, meeting all our orders and making sure that we're growing responsibly. We need to keep the focus on employees, making sure that they have a good work experience here because that's part of why we're in business. We need to make sure that we're still making the best decisions in terms of the suppliers that we work with. That's a lot of communication.

Most of what I'm excited about right now at Tofurky is internal but ultimately what that means is that more people will have access to our products externally. Our expansion has been focused in a big way on international recently. I'm excited that we can influence the marketplace in places like Australia, the U.K. and Scandinavia. There's just so much interest, so much social change and it's great to be supporters of that with our products.

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