Meet the Innovators Who Want to Kill the Chicken Nugget
First it was burgers. Now plant-based startups are coming for the nugget — but chicken is a much tougher challenge.
Christie Lagally used to see a lot of chicken trucks when she drove 35 miles each morning from Seattle to her job in Everett, Washington. “Every single morning up I-5 at about 5:45 in the morning, they’d transport the chickens to slaughter,” she says. “What calls us to action can come from a lot of different directions.” A mechanical engineer at Boeing, Lagally also volunteered for Humane Society, working to pass animal rights legislation in states like California and Washington. But the pace of change was excruciatingly slow, and meanwhile, day after day, Lagally was still driving to work and seeing more trucks of chickens on their way to slaughter.
“I really want to do something about this,” Lagally remembers telling a few particularly entrepreneurial-minded animal rights advocates in a hotel lobby during an animal rights conference. She talked to Josh Balk, a vice president for the Humane Society who also happens to be a co-founder of the plant-based food company Just, Inc. With the success of companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat as their inspiration, the group started brainstorming about what was still missing from the plant-based landscape. Someone suggested cheap-as-chicken plant-based nuggets and Lagally thought, well, why not? How hard can that be?
It can be pretty darn hard, it turns out. Trey Malone, an agricultural economist at Michigan State University, studies consumer buying habits for meat and meat substitutes, and believes that chicken “is going to be a pretty difficult market to disrupt.” Chicken is cheap and plentiful, and Americans eat it by the truckload. While per capita beef consumption has decreased by about one third since the 1970s, during that same time period, per capita chicken consumption has been steadily increasing.
There are plenty of reasons to avoid chicken, including the frequently grueling and low-paying jobs offered by the poultry processing industry.