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February 3, 2009

The Importance of Meatless Food -- and of Seth Tibbott's Tofurky

The Humane Society of the United States

Seth Tibbot is an entrepreneur, advocate and leader in the rapidly growing meat alternatives market. His Tofurky brand is a household name, and his work was recently featured in The Wall Street Journal.

Seth's company Turtle Island Foods also teamed up with The HSUS to help spread the word that delicious, satisfying meatless foods are easy to find and prepare.

The HSUS's Erin Williams recently had the chance to ask Seth a few questions about his business, the growing market for vegetarian products and why it's so important to choose meatless foods.

How did you become a vegetarian?

It was 1974, and I had been working as an outdoor teacher and was becoming more involved with environmental issues. Looking at the world through environmental glasses, I became immediately impressed with how our diets affect natural resources and how inefficient meat consumption is.

The environmental reasons for vegetarianism are so hard to argue against—and they're why we're trying to connect the dots between plant-based foods and protecting the planet. We created our campaign to highlight the benefits of meatless foods. It was really successful—based on people's pledges, our virtual Tofurkymobile circled the planet two or three times!

How has your customer base grown?

When I started Turtle Island Foods in 1980, it was mostly a tempeh company. Back then, tempeh was a little tough to find, but now it's one of the fastest-growing meat alternatives. Our customer base was initially hard-core vegetarians. But as we introduced our Tofurky products, we were able to reach out more to flexitarians (sometimes-vegetarians), who number about 40% of this country.

Sausages, deli slices and franks appeal to a broader audience, so now we're able to entice more people than ever to reduce their meat intake.

Our growth shows how easy it is to eat vegetarian.

What are some of the best stories you've heard from customers?

It's always amazing how much fan mail we get. Here are a couple of my favorites:

"Just wanted to share with you that my dad, who is undergoing chemotherapy, was told by his nutritionist to eat a diet high in protein, but low in animal fats. My dad has never been a real meat eater but isn't a vegetarian either. Well, after introducing him to some of your products (like the Tofurky Kielbasa), he said he could easily give up meat. I am so happy that one of your Kielbasa links has 24 grams of protein! I plan on buying him a lot of these. Thanks for everything you do!" —LT

"I just wanted to let you know I buy your products and love them. I am thankful for them…I have a meat-eating husband who will not go veg and he actually will eat your products." —JZ

What's been one of the most important lessons you've learned about introducing people to vegetarian foods?

Some people ask, "Why do you want to imitate the taste of meat?" One answer is that most of us grew up with the taste and texture of meat, so it's important to provide alternatives that are familiar and simple to prepare.

And encourage people wherever they're at with their food choices. Every step to eating more and more vegetarian meals is important, and it's so easy to set a good example.

More and more people are going to the doctor and being told that they need to stop eating meat for health reasons. It's a jump for some people to go from eating steak to tofu—but now it's easy to eat better, drop our cholesterol, and enjoy familiar slices, franks and sandwiches and not miss a thing.

Meat alternatives aren't for a small niche of vegetarians anymore. Who doesn't know someone struggling with diabetes, obesity, or high cholesterol? We can all relate to meat alternatives.

Erin Williams is the communications director of The HSUS's factory farming campaign and the co-author of Why Animals Matter: The Case for Animal Protection

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