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Meet Meat—Made From Plants

Alum’s Products Offer Chicken, Beef Alternatives

By Karen Shih ’09


If Ethan Brown M.P.M. ’97 gets his way, you’ll be eating plant-based burgers at McDonald’s in the next decade—and you won’t notice the difference.

He founded Beyond Meat in 2009, producing chicken strips, beef crumbles and a “Beast Burger” so meatlike that they’ve won over New York Times’ food columnist Mark Bittman, the Food Network’s Alton Brown and even investor and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who was sure there were animal proteins mixed in. Available at 7,000 stores across the country, including Target, Safeway and Whole Foods, the products are also making their way into restaurants and fast-casual chains like Which Wich.

His ambition is to allow people to eat what they love, but not feel like they’re hurting their health, the Earth or animals. And he’s ambitious on how he’ll make that happen.

“I’m totally focused on the meat industry and what inroads I can make there,” says Brown. “I pay no attention” to the vegan or vegetarian brands that would seem to be the company’s natural competitors.

Beyond Meat’s secret: They break down meat to its basic structure: amino acids, lipids, carbohydrates, minerals and water. “We can rebuild them directly from plants because none of those things are exclusive to animals,” Brown says.Ethan Brown

He worked with scientists from the University of Missouri and University of Maryland to develop his initial products, earning two grants from the state through the Maryland Industrial Partnerships program.

Former UMD Professor Martin Lo, who now owns his own company, helped improved the mouth feel, taste and flavor.

“The first generation of the product was like a broken tire torn apart,” says Lo. “We were able to successfully tenderize the rubbery material and make it more like pulled chicken.”

That Brown would to turn to UMD for expertise was no surprise. His father Peter’s drive and vision spurred the founding of the School of Public Policy when it was established in 1981, as well as the later establishment of the environmental specialization track.

“I remember coming to the UMD campus with my dad and sticking my hand in a cow,” says Brown, a lifelong animal lover who thought he might become a veterinarian.

But instead, after college, he spent a decade working in clean energy and fuel cells. Eventually, the dichotomy between a daytime meeting to eke out just one percent more efficiency from a light bulb and an after-work hangout at a steakhouse drove him to come up with his own way to help save the planet (and create something delicious to eat for himself, a vegan).

After some early struggles, such as when he was unable to unload a shipment from the Port of Baltimore because he ran out of money, investment from Kleiner Perkins (which brought in people like Gates) and a partnership with Whole Foods Market put Beyond Meat on a path to success.

“We’re always on the lookout for new, innovative products,” says Mid-Atlantic Culinary Coordinator Alan Morgan, who uses Beyond Meat’s “beef” in Whole Foods’ Espresso Beer Chili and Vegan American Chop Suey. The crumbles and the Beast burger both have more protein than a comparable amount of beef, and the burger has a “muscle recovery blend” mix of antioxidants, omegas (more than in salmon) and vitamins.

But Brown’s not satisfied yet.

“When the horse-drawn carriage was replaced by the automobile, people weren’t giving up a luxury, they were getting something that’s better. With the gas lamp and the electric light, or the land line and the cell phone, it’s the same thing,” he says.

“People ask me if my product is perfect, and I’ll absolutely say, ‘No, it continues to need work,’” he says. “Just like technology companies introduce new versions every year, we’re constantly improving our products.”

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Strategic Communications for the University of Maryland community weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.