Monday, March 4, 2024

Your Plate Is an Ethical Battleground. Vegan Chicken Brand VFC Is Poised for Victory.


The U.K.’s VFC says it is using vegan chicken as a way to end animal suffering and thwart the climate crisis. And with a do-or-die mentality, the activist-founded brand might just succeed.

The protein industry is at war.

Ranchers and farmers keep their practices under literal lock and key. In leading agricultural states, trespassers—often journalists—face lawsuits and prison time for attempting to capture a photo or two of what goes on inside those dark, locked sheds.

At the state and federal levels, the animal agriculture industry has attempted to ban language such as “burger” or “cheese” on packaging for products made from plants to resemble animal offerings.

Meanwhile, animal agriculture is a leading cause of climate change, producing at least 15 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. The recent IPCC report called for an urgent reduction in CO2 and methane—the latter predominantly the result of raising livestock.

VFC’s vegan chicken is now available in the U.S. | Courtesy

The World Health Organization has declared some forms of meat carcinogenic, and nearly all the rest of it is linked to antibiotic resistance and increased likelihood of another pandemic potentially more dangerous than covid. Heart disease remains the number one killer in the West—an affliction most often a result of dietary and lifestyle choices.

In recent years there has been a flood of vegan meat on the market—particularly in the burger space with Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat successfully proving fast food can be more sustainable, ethical, and healthy without compromising on taste.

But the last two years have been all about chicken—nuggets have taken over in major restaurant chains including KFC and Burger King. Supermarket buyers are awash in samples from vegan chicken producers so much so that some have put moratoriums on plant-based chicken pitches.

And while consumers are eating more flexitarian than ever before, animal consumption continues to rise around the planet, particularly chicken consumption. It’s the most consumed meat in the U.S., overtaking pork in 1996 as the second most consumed meat. According to the USDA, since 1970, chicken availability per person has more than doubled. In 2018, 65.2 pounds of chicken per person were available for Americans to eat compared to 54.6 pounds of beef.

We’re activists who sell food; not a food company using activism as a marketing tool.”

-Matthew Glover, co-founder VFC

All things considered, it’s no wonder the folks at VFC, the U.K.-based vegan fried chicken brand, are taking a soldier’s approach to the protein industry. A business born out of activism—Matthew Glover is co-founder of the popular Veganuary campaign, and Adam Lyons is a renowned vegan chef and restaurateur—with the aim to save chickens while offering a nostalgic meal experience that tastes as good as traditional fried chicken.

We caught up with Glover recently via email to discuss the brand, now available in the U.S., and why the race to replace animal meat is more important than ever.

Ethos: How did the idea come about for VFC?

MG: I am always looking for new ideas that will make the biggest difference to animals. Veganuary was one idea that really took off but I was keen to do something specifically for chickens. They are farmed and slaughtered in far greater numbers than any other land animals, and they also suffer the worst farm conditions, along with pigs. I was already thinking about what I might be able to do when I ordered the vegan fried chick*n at Adam’s restaurant Source. It was amazing. By far the best I had ever tasted. And right there, the answer was staring up at me from my plate. I felt that if everyone could taste this, they’d love it too, and we could encourage the transition from eating animals to plants. Thankfully, Adam agreed, and we started to hatch plans.

Ethos: How long did it take to perfect the recipe?

MG: We’re still perfecting it! Version 1 was delicious, but scaling it up was challenging. We needed to make some changes, and we used that opportunity to address some of the feedback we’d had. The coating was pretty much universally loved, but we needed to work on the texture inside to get it to match meat from animals as closely as possible. V2 is the one available now, but we are always looking for improvements, so we are already working on V3.

Ethos: The vegan chicken market seems quite full recently. How are you aiming to differentiate yourself from others in the space?

MG: Yes, the market is filling up, and we’re very happy about that. Of course, we want people to buy and love VFC, but if they buy and love another vegan chicken brand, that is a win for our mission: to spare the lives of birds. 

We differentiate ourselves in three ways: first, our packaging screams at people to pick it up! We didn’t want to slot neatly into the standard ‘plant-based’ category by using natural imagery and a neutral palette. We wanted to shout from the rooftops that we’re vegan and delicious. Second, we worked on our products intensively, listened to feedback, and are constantly evolving. People wanted popcorn chick*n alongside the Fillets and Bites so we added the third SKU to our range and it’s proven incredibly popular. The third way we differentiate ourselves is in our messaging and tone—we are not just offering vegan food; we are giving people the reasons to try it, and we do that in an honest, humorous, and confident way. We’re activists who sell food; not a food company using activism as a marketing tool.

Ethos: How much focus is going into retail versus foodservice?

MG: In the U.K., our focus initially was on retail. Getting supermarket listings was our key aim as it was the quickest way to get the most product in front of the most people in order to spare the most chickens. Then we looked at foodservice. VFC is now listed with Brakes, and is in many restaurants already, and we’ve got a number of U.K. universities lined up to start offering VFC next semester. In the U.S., things are very different, and foodservice was a significant part of our plan from the outset. Not that we’re neglecting retail, both online and in-store. Our U.S. team has apparently endless opportunities at this time of huge growth in the sector, and they are working across both retail and foodservice, trying to meet demand from independent stores to nationwide chains. 

Ethos: Will there be dedicated VFC restaurants to rival KFC?

MG: That’s the dream. Except we’d want there to be VFC restaurants instead of KFC.

Ethos: Why chickens?

MG: Because of this:

This is the first time our chef Adam visited a chicken farm.

Ethos: How are you calculating the “chickens spared” numbers?

MG: The target slaughter weight for a ‘broiler’ chicken in the UK is 2–2.5kg, with 1–1.5kg of each bird’s carcass being edible. So, for the purposes of our calculator, one chicken’s life saved is equivalent to every 1.5kg of vegan fried chick*n we sell. 

Ethos: How do you see food as activism evolving?

MG: We’re on the brink of climate breakdown, and it is essential that every sector of society, including food brands, takes responsibility. VFC commissioned an eco audit so we could showcase the positive impact of choosing animal-free foods, but also to identify areas where we could do better. What it found – and what respected institutions like Harvard, Oxford University, and Chatham House are also concluding – is that vegan foods outperform foods made from animals in every environmental metric: from water and land use to GHG emissions to biodiversity loss and pollution. 

Our food choices aren’t just about taste. They relate to the health of the planet and its wild inhabitants, to food equity, and sustainability, and to the ethical questions of exploiting and killing animals. When we choose vegan foods, we are choosing a kinder, safer, more sustainable future, which makes those choices activism in action. Our customers might not know it, but just by choosing VFC, they have joined the sit-down protest against the suffering, environmental degradation, and food inequalities in the world. That’s pretty incredible. Plus, they’re getting a really tasty dinner. 


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