A significant newcomer into the meat-free veggy market – and possibly dairy-free too – is growing...
1. A significant newcomer into the meat-free veggy market – and possibly dairy-free too – is growing according to claims made by Vion, “the number 2 food processor in Europe, second only to giant Unilever, which it has firmly in its sight, according to the Meat Trades Journal (18 January 2008). Vion’s Ton Christiaanse says: “Rapid expansion and acquisition outside its traditional fields of operation have seen the company reposition itself as not just a meat processor, but as a food business.” He is Chief Operating Officer of Vion’s convenience division and the person charged with taking the 4-years-old firm into previously uncharted waters.” Convenience now represents about €1.1bn to €1.5bn in turnover (compared with €6.4bn on fresh meat), but it is “a key area of growth going forward” says Ton Christiaanse.
2. “We have seen good growth – in fact we’ve doubled in volume in the last 4 years. But in the next 3-5 years we shall treble sales of the convenience division, up to €2.5bn”, Christiaanse claims. The UK is likely to play an increasingly important role in the plans. The name Vion was introduced in 2006, but the company started life under a different name in the 1930s. Vion has a turnover of €7.4bn, employs 15,000 employees, and has operations throughout Europe and around the world. It has 3 divisions: Vion Fresh Meat, Vion Convenience, and Vion Ingredients. The ingredients division deals with everything from energy and petfood to animal feed, films, and pharmaceuticals. With its €6.4bn turnover and employing nearly half the company’s workforce, with interests in beef, pork, and lamb the division forms the heart of the business.
3. “I think we’re the largest beef operator in Europe, in terms of volume and slaughtering capacity”, says Ton Christiaanse. Vion is also the second largest pork processor in Europe. However, convenience… is where most of the growth is expected and recent acquisitions and developments have backed the company’s claims to no longer simply be a meat company. We now have a vegetarian offer, says Christiaanse. “It’s not particularly big in the UK yet, but it’s very big in the Netherlands and growing. We are now one of the largest meat substitute businesses. We see a growing trend towards meat-free solutions – it remains a niche market, but it’s still a market that’s profitable and growing and an area we want to be in.” He says he does not see the development as a conflict with the company’s main meat operations, adding that having a vegetarian offer allows it to target new consumers. Vion is also launching into the vegetable market. “Our two home markets are the Netherlands and Germany,” says Christiaanse, eyeing the UK as the company’s third home market. Many new acquisitions will be in the convenience sector. “Ready meals, organic food… they’re all growing trends throughout the whole of Europe”. He says that “you can see what trends are happening in the UK first – it’s a good few years ahead of the Netherlands, and even further ahead of Germany and other countries”.
4. Does this focus on convenience, vegetables, and vegetarians mean that Vion is set to turn its back on meat? Ton Christiaanse’s answers: “Meat is extremely important to our convenience offer, but it’s less and less the main focus. We now look at it as part of the meal, not the meal itself. Within our portfolio the percentage will decrease, but it will still be the most important part and will continue to play an important role. It’s not that meat is less important to us, just that other areas are becoming just as important…”
5. Competition needs to be stimulated within the veggie sector and something of the enterprise that drove research into plant-based proteinaceous and savory ingredients and foods must be rekindled. Among other commendable sources are fungi and yeasts and products from cell-cultures and by-products of the brewing and bread-making industries that are protein-rich and at present incorporated, undeveloped, in animal feed. Official initiatives to reduce numbers of farm animals as consumption of meat and dairy is decreased may, however, be countervailed by opposing global demands and the increasing demand for animal-derived foods, as well as the competition for land to grow biofuels. The Netherlands has a centre for agronomic excellence that appreciates such factors and the resources of a major food company look good additions to the advances now manifest in the dairy-free side. Unfortunately, the steep rises in the prices of grain crops are coming though into veggie markets, even if they enjoy the advantages in growing crops for food directly, rather than wastefully for feeding non-human animals to convert into edible products.
6. Last year an experiment was made in the UK to grow field beans for development as a possible alternative for soya or chickpeas. If the pest control was good enough, the crop was destined for food; if it showed any form of infestation, it would lose value and go into feedstuffs. We have followed the outcome of this trial and another with a revival of cobnut growing. We regret that the beans did not cut the mustard for food manufacture, but the cobnuts triumphed and were used in our Christmas recipe in the Portfolio of eating plans founded on plant-based food production. Such developments are welcome; contamination of veggie foods with unloaded products of the dairy industry – now a widespread practice – is not. We hope consumer demand and agronomic factors will steer Vion clear of the compromises perpetuated in lacto-ovo-vegetarianism. It may be a growing niche market, but dropping into that rut would be lamentable when it could settle into the groove of well-informed development and benefit.