As meatless, “bleeding” Impossible Burgers and lab-grown meat gain traction in restaurants and supermarkets across the country, a gang of vegan investors is quietly fueling the next set of up-and-coming, plant-based food products. In a recent report, CNBC unmasked a few of these powerful individuals, collectively known as the “vegan mafia,” who are helping fund a future in which humans rely less on animals products.
The vegan mafia — a play on the wealthy Silicon Valley group known as the “PayPal mafia” that includes Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, and Reid Hoffman — is a group comprised of wealthy vegans with an interest in financing startup businesses. The loose alliance includes a self-driving car company CEO, the founder of ZICO coconut water, Wall Street traders, venture capitalists, and the heads of several investment funds.
Although the vegan mafia abstains from eating meat themselves, the group is primarily investing in projects that will appeal to both vegans and non-vegans such as an animal-free gelatin called Geltor and a West Coast-based, fast-casual vegan restaurant, Veggie Grill. The overall goal of the investments is to reduce the meat and dairy industry’s impact on the environment and public health while developing ways to feed growing populations worldwide. Most believe this can only be done by enticing consumers to purchase animal-free items by creating better-tasting alternatives to traditional vegan products.
“The case for giving up meat is clear: There's a health case, an environmental case,” Seth Bannon, a partner at a seed fund called Fifty Years, tells CNBC. “But we have largely given up on education as a tool for convincing people.”
This more pragmatic mission among developers of meatless products has at times resulted in some complaints from strict vegans. When Impossible Burgers rolled out at Los Angeles Umami Burger restaurants in May, vegan bloggers derided the chain for pairing the patties with non-vegan sauces and buns.
Meanwhile, questions about the safety of one of Impossible Burger’s key ingredients — soy leghemoglobin, the substance that gives the burger its texture, meaty flavor, and bleeding quality — have arisen. The Food and Drug Administration has stopped short of declaring soy leghemoglobin safe, stating that the food tech startup Impossible Foods has not adequately tested the product to determine if the ingredient could be an allergen.
Other prominent vegan food startups have also faced controversy, such as Hampton Creek. The Silicon Valley-backed company, which produces vegan mayonnaise product Just Mayo, was accused of artificially inflating its sales by directing employees to purchase large amounts of the product from grocery stores. The allegations have prompted the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department to investigate the matter.