Washington-based Field Roast, which was founded in 1997 and employs approximately 200 people, creates grain-based ‘meat’ and vegan cheese products – with sales of approximately $38 million.
It is the second meatless brand Maple Leaf Foods – which employs over 11,000 people across North America and has been described as ‘Canada’s largest meat processor’ – has bought this year.
In February, it invested $140 million snapping up veggie company Lightlife.
According to Maple Leaf Foods President and CEO Michael McCain, while the company wants to expand its offering, it wants to do so in a socially conscious way.
He said: “The acquisition of Field Roast complements and expands our portfolio in the fast-growing North American market for alternative proteins.
“It also aligns with our vision to be a leader in sustainable protein and create shared value through making a positive social impact.
“Field Roast has built brand leadership through focusing on quality, craftsmanship and taste, and its acquisition will allow Maple Leaf to fuel growth in the category through investment, brand building and innovation.”
But when a company that has built itself on the commodification of animals acquires one with vegan values, it comes with a certain level of controversy, and tends to spark debate within the plant-based and vegan communities.
This was evident earlier this summer: the acquisition of vegan cheese company Daiya by Otsuka Pharmaceutical caused huge debate when consumers learned that Otsuka tests on animals.
With such disparate values, many decided to boycott Daiya’s products, choosing to invest their money into companies with ethics more aligned with their own.
Plant-based company Beyond Meat also faced scrutiny in October last year when meat processing giant Tyson bought a five percent stake in the company for an undisclosed fee.
Writing at the time, CEO Ethan Brown said he accepted that the news would be problematic for some consumers, saying: “My willingness to engage with Tyson may unsettle the most ardent supporters of our brand.
“Tyson will also likely hear disapproval from certain stakeholders, suppliers, and consumers.
“Yet in both cases, I like to think that our nascent relationship is a hopeful sign. A sign that we may be moving…toward productive collaboration that expands consumer choice.”
While investing this kind of money into plant-based brands is surely a smart business decision for the likes of Maple Leaf, Otsuka, and Tyson Foods, it can create questions for ethically-motivated shoppers.
Some consumers are uneasy knowing they are now, by proxy, supporting a non-vegan company if they continue to buy products from companies like Field Roast.
It may at times be difficult to stomach the idea that Maple Leaf and Tyson are the same companies that have historically exploited animals for profit.
However, it may be better to see events such as these as wins, and signs of massive progress, for the animals – given what the vegan movement is up against.
Investment from bigger corporations could translate into improved marketability, reach, and overall success for plant-based products.
In addition, maybe the ethics of the smaller brands could start to rub off on their new, less ethical parent companies?
Field Roast CEO David Lee said: “One thing is for certain – we are as committed as ever to the vegan movement, keeping our products vegan, and creating a more beautiful and peaceful world to live in.”
It’s undeniable that the market is changing, as is the discourse around food in North America and beyond.
This investment may very well be a beacon of hope.