When we first became vegetarians in the 1970s, there were only a few companies, such as Worthington Foods and Heinz (with Vegetarian Baked Beans), that promoted their foods as vegetarian. Most of the products that were clearly identified this way had strong religious audiences, targeting groups such as Seventh-day Adventists or Jewish people who kept kosher and refrained from mixing meat with milk. When vegetarian products weren’t economically popular, activists and a few businesses took an interest in these items and promoted them because they wished to see them succeed. Today, it seems many companies actively market a meatless item because there is a stronger profit motive now.
When we exhibited at a recent American Dietetic Association annual meeting, we were happy to see that a major soy company was also present. However, they displayed only soymilk and did not showcase their other soy products. The booth’s personnel told us that, at this mainstream conference, they promoted only soymilk because 1) this product accounted for 95 percent of their sales, and 2) their other products are only in a limited number of markets and therefore unavailable to many potential customers.
In general, companies will only promote products they consider economically advantageous. It’s up to nonprofit organizations (for example, vegetarian groups) to inform consumers about their other items. In our capitalistic system, a product comes to the forefront because many ‘volunteers’ and organizations, as well as a few businesses, enter the market before there is enough consumer demand or distribution and push that item. At the right time, a smart, lucky, and hard-working entrepreneur capitalizes on some feature and makes lots of money. Often, the people who have been pushing these items for years go unrewarded. It doesn’t matter if you are talking about computers, software, or a vegetable burger. The companies that have flourished are built on the shoulders of giants and succeeded partially because of those who went before them.
After being at the American Dietetic Association, we had a booth at Natural Products Expo East. We learned that a large natural foods retail chain told a company offering vegan chicken nuggets that one of the product’s ingredients didn’t fit their ‘natural’ criteria. Therefore, the manufacturer switched a vegan ingredient to egg whites so that they could market to that chain. Another company producing a vegan analog told us they felt pressure to use whey to compete with similar non-vegan products.
We’ve also learned that, according to the Burger King website (updated in December 2004), the veggie burger that the company offers now has egg and calcium caseinate. Previously, these ingredients weren’t listed. (As of March 2005, Burger King’s website states this is not a vegan product.)
Numerous vegetarian companies have been sold to larger entities that want to reach the greatest number of consumers. This may lead them to change a product’s ingredients. Also, it appears that these businesses want to advertise in wide-circulation media. This trend promotes vegetarian products to the mainstream public. However, vegetarian media often do not have the circulation that some large companies require to consider advertising with them. Therefore, even though there has been a proliferation of vegetarian and vegan products, it actually can be harder for vegetarian publications and vegetarian TV and radio programs that depend on advertising.
In spite of this country’s imperfections, America has thrived because of its strong business, government, and nonprofit sectors. Though people in each entity don’t always understand or support one another, each has its role to play and makes the others stronger.
According to a Whole Foods Market® press release, the natural and organic foods supermarket was to give 5 percent of total company sales on January 25, 2005, to create the Animal Compassion Foundation. This nonprofit will provide education and research services to help ranchers and meat producers around the world achieve a higher standard of animal welfare excellence while maintaining economic viability.
Standards are being formed jointly by Whole Foods, PETA, Humane Society of the United States, and others. The new standards “will give shoppers peace of mind in knowing they can find the highest quality meat products that adhere to Whole Foods Market’s strict standards and values, which include raising farm animals with compassion.” According to the PR Newswire, Whole Foods envisions raising $500,000 seed money from its first 5 percent day. PETA has encouraged its supporters to buy only vegan items from Whole Foods that day, both to send the message that the most compassionate diet is one free of all animal products and to thank Whole Foods for its commitment to providing quality vegan products.
It’s great when nonprofits and business can work together. Certainly the entities involved in this Foundation have greatly assisted the vegetarian consumer. Nevertheless, there also seem to be numerous impediments to companies in the natural foods arena selling vegan and vegetarian items, and we hope these groups and businesses can also set up a foundation to assist companies who want to sell vegan items. For example, a food technologist could help these businesses find an alternative to egg whites, or a professional could help to market vegetarian foods to retailers who require certain standards. Perhaps some of our readers would like to endow VRG so we can have a food technologist and marketing consultant who can assist companies that want to market vegan products, just as other groups are assisting companies that produce and market animal products.
We hope that individuals, businesses, and nonprofits will continue to put a high amount of effort and emphasis into promoting compassionate and healthy vegetarian diets.
Debra Wasserman & Charles Stahler
Coordinators of The Vegetarian Resource Group
The Vegetarian Journal published here is not the complete issue, but these are excerpts from the published magazine. Anyone who wishes to see everything should subscribe to the magazine.
Thanks to volunteer Stephanie Schueler for converting this article to HTML.
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