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Chicken giant Tyson Foods buys a stake in vegan start-up Beyond Meat

The company famous for chicken buys a small stake in a plant-based protein startup

Beyond Meat sells plant protein that "looks, feels, tastes and acts like chicken without the cluck," as the product packaging for its faux poultry reads. That was good enough for poultry giant Tyson Foods Inc., which acquired a 5% stake in the El Segundo-based vegan start-up Monday.

For Beyond Meat, whose products are in 7,500 stores nationwide, the fresh capital would boost product development and distribution while still leaving it an independent, privately held company, according to the company's founder and chief executive, Ethan Brown.

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"I'm pleased to welcome Tyson as an investor and look forward to leveraging this support to broaden availability of plant protein choices to consumers," Brown said of the deal.

Further terms of the investment were not disclosed.

For Tyson Foods, the move is a fast way into a rapidly growing alternative-foods segment, which could account for as much as a third of worldwide protein consumption by mid-century with a market value of as much as $108 billion, according to Lux Research.

"It meets our desire to offer consumers choices and to consider how we can serve an ever-growing and diverse global population, while remaining focused on our core prepared foods and animal protein businesses," said Monica McGurk, executive vice president of strategy and new ventures at Tyson and president of its Tyson Foodservice division.

Other major food companies have made similar moves into the growing vegan and organic markets, in part to burnish their sustainability images.

In February, agriculture giant Archer Daniels Midland acquired Harvest Innovations, a soy protein company specializing in oils and gluten-free ingredients. In July, France's Danone, best known for its Dannon brand yogurt, bought WhiteWave, which specializes in organic and plant-based alternatives to dairy products, in a deal worth $12.5 billion.

Besides catering to changing consumer preferences, food companies are increasingly concerned with the drain on natural resources that comes with raising animals for meat, said Sara Olson, a research analyst with Lux.

"The more corn and soybeans we're feeding to animals instead of to people, the less efficient it is," Olson said. "There is concern that we really can't feed a whole planet with meat."

In addition to investing in companies already in the alternative meat market, large food corporations also are setting up innovation teams to investigate use of alternative proteins as ingredients for existing products, Olson said.

Tensions remain between traditional meat companies and their plant-based competitors. In the case of Beyond Meat, Tyson joins the Humane Society of the United States, a participant in previous funding rounds that has criticized Tyson's treatment of animals. Bill Gates, another investor, is a vegan who is active in animal-cruelty campaigns.

"We're thrilled to see Tyson investing in the company too," said Paul Shapiro, the Humane Society's vice president for farm animal protection. "Americans want to diversify their protein sources with more of it coming from plants, and Tyson is positioned well to help them do that."

Brown said Tyson will not have a seat on Beyond Meat's board and will not exert influence over the company's direction. "It is just an investment at this point," he said. "We're looking at ways to collaborate, but it doesn't require that. The idea is to get acquainted and to see where it goes from there."

Follow me: @LATgeoffmohan

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3:15 p.m.: This article was updated with expert analysis.

This article was originally published at 7:35 p.m. Monday

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