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Chicago's Lightlife Tilts at Silicon Valley Bad Boys


in the food business used to be mainly a Flyover Country thing. Most of the major agricultural, food and beverage companies and industries historically have been headquartered here, and they revolutionized the global industry.

But over the last decade, coastal startups have threatened the dominance of our region in this crucial part of our economy, relying on their digital chops, easy access to capital, lifestyle leadership in plant-based eating and, now, their legerdemain in the laboratory to innovate one of the next huge phases of the industry.

That’s why Lightlife is so important. The Chicago-based company was a pioneer in plant-based meat analogs long before the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat were even conceptualized. And in a new ad campaign launching a simplification of the ingredient list for its imitation burgers, sausages and other products, Lightlife is boldly taking on the menacing new giants.

“An Open Letter to Beyond Meat & Impossible Foods,” read the headline of a recent full-page ad placed by Lightlife in the Wall Street Journal. It went on to read, “Enough with the hyper-processed ingredients, GMOs, unnecessary additives and fillers, and fake blood. While we want the same things – a greener planet and a more sustainable food system – at Lightlife, we’ve chosen a very different way to get there.

“We’re making a clean break from both of you ‘food tech’ companies that attempt to mimic meat at any cost,” the ad continued, explaining Lightlife’s own commitment to “using simple ingredients” that “are clean, recognizable and simple to pronounce.” It was signed by Lightlife President Dan Curtin.

What did Curtin mean? Well, indeed, scientists developed the two companies’ fake-ground-beef products in laboratories and engineered them carefully to mimic meat, right down to “bleeding” on the grill and including synthetically produced soy leghemoglobin for flavor and color.

“The future of plant-based is around clean and nurturing that tastes delicious,” Curtin told me. Lightlife’s simplification of its ingredient list – in line with modern consumers’ expectations – “is an opportunity to challenge not only our own team but to challenge the industry: Let’s clean up our act.”

Lightlife took out the ad, Curtin said, because “we want to speak from the heart and from facts, and that’s what we did. Let’s get it out there and let consumers know there are options – better options that fit what they told us they were looking for that wasn’t in the marketplace before we made changes.”

Consumer response via social media was “really good,” including “strong feelings on both sides” of the issue Lightlife highlighted, Curtin said. “We’re excited that we created this discussion.” Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods responded only obliquely via social media, he said.

But beyond what the ad may accomplish for Lightlife is a very important issue for the food industry in Flyover Country as a whole. It was two coastal newcomers – Beyond headquartered in El Segundo, California, and Impossible up the Pacific Coast Highway in Redwood City, California – that were able to create a narrative behind their “better-for-you burgers” that was impossible for the media to resist. Their popularity and cultural relevance has shaken up the meat business.

And besides the fact that the products were developed in California, it was Silicon Valley venture capitalists – extending their tentacles from digital tech into molecular biology -- who were there to finance these startups.

At least one company based in the heartland is fighting back. What we need to preserve the future of one of Flyover Country’s most important industries is hundreds of other companies like it.


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