Colorado producer of plant-based protein expands into new factory

Just months after JBS USA pulled the plug on its plant-based protein business, a Boulder startup has opened a factory in Thornton to expand its version of a meat alternative.

Meati Foods, founded in 2016, started operation in February at a 120,000-square-foot building where it produces plant-based food from mushroom root. The company, which has 300 employees, sells its cutlets and steaks in area Sprouts Farmer Market stores and Birdcall fast-food restaurants.

The company recently started shipping to all 385 Sprouts stores nationwide, said Scott Tassani, president and chief operating officer. He said Meati’s footprint was tied to its production capacity, which was limited until the Thornton factory opened.

“We have a pipeline of commercial partners that are interested and ready to launch as quickly as we can supply them,” said Tassani, who joined the company in 2021 after nearly 30 years at General Mills.

As interest leveled off in meat alternatives and inflation rose, JBS USA closed its Colorado-based Planterra Foods and a factory in Denver in October 2022. At the time, JBS said it planned to focus on its plant-based businesses in Brazil and Europe.

“The protein market in the U.S. is $170 billion and alternative protein is about 1% of that,” Tassani said.

The market share for plant-based alternatives is 3% to 4% in other countries, particularly in Europe, he added. Tassani sees an opportunity for growth in the U.S. for companies that can deliver products with similar taste and texture to meat.

Gary Nowacki, CEO of TraceGains in Westminster, a supply-chain solutions company that works with food and beverage businesses, said plant-based meat sales grew by 45% in 2020, but declined as inflation increased. But he said alternative proteins still have a bright future.

“Consumers, especially younger ones, are increasingly concerned about their health and the environment, two critical drivers of alternative meat sales,” Nowacki said in an email.

Despite some companies seeing their values decrease in 2022 and the shutdown of Planterra, the alternative protein market is still growing, according to InnovoPro, a company in Israel that sells its plant-based protein products worldwide. The trend is driven in part by a growing recognition of the impact of industrial meat production on climate change, the company said in an email.

Raising livestock for food generates nearly 15% of total global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change. 

Tassani said Meati isn’t interested in using beef-bashing to promote its product. He said Tyler Huggins, co-founder and CEO, grew up on a bison ranch in Nebraska.

“The culture and the DNA of the company is not to be anti-meat,” Tassani said.

The company calls its production facilities, including a pilot plant, “ranches.” The Thornton plant is called the mega ranch. The production, which uses a fermentation process to grow the fake meat, all takes place in the building.

Asked what he believes ranchers would think of the company’s lingo, including its name, Tassani thinks if they sat down and ate a Meati steak, they would agree it tastes good.

Colorado is a major beef-producing state. The Colorado Department of Agriculture said beef exports totaled $1.6 billion in 2022.  JBS Foods USA, which shuttered Planterra, has a beef facility and its U.S. headquarters up the road from Thornton in Greeley.

Colorado cattle ranchers have been vocal about defending the industry, taking on Gov. Jared Polis in 2021 after he proclaimed a “MeatOut” day. The proclamation praised the health and environmental benefits of plant-based diets.

The Colorado Cattlemen’s Association and others responded by holding a “MeatIn” day to celebrate the industry and beef.

Again, Tassani said Meati doesn’t use what he sees as the “very polarizing” approach of saying animal meat is bad. “That doesn’t necessarily resonate to the same degree as, ‘Hey, here’s a new category, a new superfood, a new protein.’ ”

Meati co-founders Huggins and Justin Whiteley were both doctoral students when they began researching the use of mushroom root as alternative protein source to boost nutrition and address hunger.

“Over time, the idea is that we would scale into a global company and have the ability to put footprints very similar to what we’ve developed in Thornton in other countries,” Tassini said.

Using a fermentation to process the mushroom root, Meati can grow a teaspoon of spores into the protein equivalent of hundreds of cows in just a few days, Tassani said. The company anticipates cultivating the roots at an annual rate of tens of millions of pounds.

The process starts with mushroom spores, water and sugar. As the product grows, it is transferred into subsequently larger fermentation tanks, the largest ones capable of holding several thousand gallons.

The product is then cooked, seasoned, quick-frozen and distributed. Mushroom root, also known as mycelium, is 95% of the product, according to the company.

“The molding process makes it look like a traditional piece of chicken or steak,” Tassani said. “From the beginning, through the fermentation and then cooking it, the finished product takes about four days.”

One of the varieties, the “Classic Cutlet,” provides 17 grams of complete protein and eight grams of fiber, according to the company’s literature. It also contains iron, zinc and B vitamins, but no cholesterol.

Tassani said a venture capital fund created by Chipotle Mexican Grill has invested in Meati. The company’s total funding to date is more than $250 million, he said.

Meati expects to add more full-time jobs. Tassani said the company’s hourly wage is “well above $20 an hour.”

“We’re proud of the impact we’re making locally as we look to make an even bigger impact nationally,” he added.

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