Out of The Jungle

Labor in the age of plant-based meat

On a hilly stretch of West Seattle, situated near a Trader Joe’s and a YMCA, is a beige 21,000-square-foot factory. Inside you’ll find boxes and bags of ingredients, soy and wheat protein, various powders, and seasonings, flat-packed and stacked, not unlike the last stop in Ikea before you hit the cashier. Yet these ordinary trappings belie what’s tucked within—a top-secret nugget-making machine that could be a boon for the future of plant-based work.

This is Rebellyous HQ, a plant-based “chicken” company that churns out 1,500 pounds of nuggets, tenders, and patties per day at their pilot location. “This actually used to be a meat processing plant,” says Christie Lagally, the company’s founder and CEO. In fact, before Rebellyous took it over in 2019, the facility was used to slice various meats for sandwiches destined for airline meals.

Most of the nuggets made here now are formulated specifically for public school lunches, made lower in sodium and high enough in protein to qualify as an “alternate meat” under federal school lunch guidelines. It sells other, slightly saltier, formulations of tenders and patties to restaurants and some grocery stores, a pivot it made during the pandemic when schools were first closed.

Rebellyous was part of the big wave of tech-forward, plant-based and alternative protein startups founded in the last decade, spurred on by the early success of Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. Many of these companies were founded by animal rights activists diving into the startup space, all looking to use technology to make a better-tasting version of meat.

That description certainly fits Lagally—she’s both an animal rights advocate and a former Boeing engineer. In her case, rather than concoct a heme (the molecule that makes meat taste like meat) that recalls beef or beet juice that allows new products to “bleed,” her focus has always been on the machinery. By designing a completely automated, “continuous hydration and dough-making” machine, Lagally says she’s made plant-based nugget processing cheap and efficient enough to compete on price with chicken. By the company’s estimates, her nuggets will be cheaper, in fact.

But, perhaps more importantly, she can make the case that her company is a better deal for workers, too—building a nugget from textured soy eliminates the worst part of slaughterhouse work. And regular input from workers improving the ergonomics of her team’s design doesn’t hurt either.

But how much can one nugget maker do? Sales for plant-based companies have lagged. Series like “WeCrashed” and “The Dropout” exposed false promises made by tech CEOs in other sectors, and alternative meat has its Adam Neumanns and Elizabeth Holmeses too. Cultured meat’s overhyped promised market release date of 2018 came and went. On a broader level, the alternative protein industry has been criticized by food system advocates who say fake meat isn’t a holistic food system solution. Rather, it simply builds on and exploits our current capitalist system.

It seems clear enough that fake meat isn’t a silver-bullet solution, but few food system fixes are. Meat alternatives can be a meaningful tool in a just environmental transition for animals and workers alike. We just have to be clear-eyed about their limits.

How To Make a Nugget Robot

Once I’ve donned a hairnet and lab coat, I can tour Rebellyous’s 8,000-square-foot production area. When the company first started operating at this site, an automated system was still mostly just an idea in Lagally’s head and on her notepads. So Lagally says they did what most plant-based companies do: use existing processing equipment designed for meat. “It's still rudimentary at best,” says Lagally. There are lots of steps that require mixing dry ingredients with wet ones in a giant mixer, and adding an emulsifying agent that gets mixed up with a giant immersion stick blender. “Then it finally goes into the incline conveyor that goes into the forming machine, the batter machine, the breading machine, and the frying machine, and then finally we package it.”

Soon, though, the team will be fully deploying their new machine, the Mock 1S. The engineers who designed it are practically giddy with excitement when I ask them to talk about it. The lead mechanical engineer had previous experience designing robotic systems, and another engineer came from the automotive industry. They are working together to figure out the best way to automate the measuring, hydration, mixing, forming, frying, and temperature control. The new system eliminates the need for a human to engage in repetitive tasks like lifting and scooping, as well as having to constantly loosen sticky dough out of the bowl, while also lowering production costs.

In the meantime, workers on the floor on any given day might be giving feedback to the engineers as they work out an aspect of the new assembly line. Though this wasn’t always the case, all of the workers (even hourly employees) now get benefits, and they can participate in profit-sharing.

Making “meat” out of pea protein or soy is far less dangerous and grueling than the worst slaughterhouse jobs.

One floor supervisor, Christina, has worked at Rebellyous for the past two years. She’s busy today and can only spare a few minutes to talk. She describes the many ways the new system will be more “helpful,” a much-needed improvement over the old scoop-and-mix method. “We have to lift these bowls that are like 70 pounds, maybe a little bit more than that, repetitively, like 25 to 30 times a day,” she says. For each addition of dry ingredients, you also need to measure in a heavy container of water, which she then has to mix together, repetitively, multiple times per day. She frequently must stop and scrape the dough or bend over to scoop. “The Mock 1S would be continuous, and we won’t have to do all of these baby steps.”

The workers at Rebellyous HQ have all played some role in the development of this new machine that will ease the physical demands of their labor, which seems to have the added benefit of making them feel invested in their work. But these aren’t the only workers Rebellyous relies on to produce its nuggets. After launching, the company quickly outgrew the output capacity of its pilot facility. Like many other plant-based companies, it started outsourcing the bulk of its production to a facility about a mile away. “We produce about 80% of our products at a co-manufacturing facility,” says Lagally. That processing plant is called Orca Bay, and it handles frozen fish and plant-based foods.

Orca Bay’s output is 50,000 pounds per day—over 30 times more than the pilot facility. The production equipment is much bigger there, too, and as a result the labor tends to be more physically demanding than in a typical workday at the pilot facility. Lagally shows me a video of Orca Bay workers, which isn’t publicly available but she describes what’s going on. “As you're trying to hydrate it, it gets heavier and heavier,” she says of the mix she calls “dough,” “because it absorbs water. And then the bigger the batch, the heavier it is, and then it pushes the water off the bottom.”

Whatever physical challenges present themselves for the workers at the small headquarters plant, they are magnified at the co-packing plant, where loading what looks to be a nine-foot-tall mixer requires standing on a ladder. The video shows workers struggling to move the dough from one stage to another. It’s not just scraping a mixing bowl. Workers are trying to lift up and loosen the dough from an enormous container that requires two workers to hoist.

The new system, though, will be “completely hands-free, all anybody has to do is press a button, and that gets it moving,” says Lagally. It’s also temperature-controlled, reducing the need to keep the warehouse uncomfortably cold. The automations will mean fewer workers at new facilities as the company scales up, and that could come with price implications. Critics might say their new bottom line price is achieved by using higher Seattle-area labor costs in both sets of calculations (the bottom line may differ in a state with lower labor costs then), Lagally cautions. But on the other hand, there’s no plan to eliminate employees at HQ. Lagally can barely find enough employees as it is.

Is Alternative Protein Manufacturing Better for Workers?

There are plenty of ways in which fake meat is better than animal meat. Getting institutions like schools and hospitals to swap their poultry for soy saves countless animal lives—scaled up, these swaps would save millions if not billions of chickens each year—which packs a bigger welfare punch for poultry than for other forms of meat, since due to their cramped living conditions, chickens suffer much crueler deaths and lives compared to cows. It’s also a pretty clear environmental win depending on the swaps you make—alternatives are lower in emissions than beef and without the pollution from pork, dairy or poultry manure.

For workers, too, plant-based processing factories like Rebellyous are much better places to be employed than slaughterhouses. Making “meat” out of pea protein or soy is far less dangerous and grueling than the worst slaughterhouse jobs, which require workers to break down carcasses in cold and dark factories, working shoulder-to-shoulder, a profession with some of the highest injury and mortality rates.

In the meatpacking plant, too, work isn’t just uncomfortable but grueling. It could involve de-feathering, pulling apart pieces, removing skin, or cleaning the animal of blood and other waste. It’s dangerous because of the endless repetition, sharp equipment, and line speeds—a combination of stress, exhaustion and boredom leads to mistakes which in turn causes injuries, and the shoulder-to-shoulder work in the cold is also ripe for spreading viruses like COVID. Worse, it’s also the toughest part of the meat industry to replace with automation because animals vary in size, making it challenging to hand these tasks over to a robot.

But it’s not just the physical burden of slaughterhouse work that has an impact, points out Garrett Broad, a researcher who studies animal rights movements and food justice activism. Slaughterhouse work takes an emotional toll on workers too, as documented in Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight, a book by political scientist Timothy Pachirat. Pachirat spent months undercover in an industrialized cattle slaughterhouse, sketching the work from memory at the end of each day. In Slaughterhouse Blues: The Meat and Poultry Industry in North America, Donald D. Stull and Michael J. Broadway catalog “the broader sociological effects that slaughterhouses have on local communities,” including psychological detachment, isolation, lower rates of emotional well-being and higher rates of arrest for crimes and domestic violence. A 2021 literature review suggested that some workers dealt with the trauma of slaughterhouse work in unhealthy ways—drinking, drug use, or even just suppressing their emotions—and that could be the cause of the increased rates of arrest and domestic violence.

It’s important not to oversell plant-based companies as the utopian workplaces of tomorrow simply because they don’t slaughter and sell meat. Some are actually terrible places to work.

Compared to that, overseeing a dough mixer is quite appealing. Still, it’s important not to oversell plant-based companies as the utopian workplaces of tomorrow simply because they don’t slaughter and sell meat. Some are actually terrible places to work. One meat alternative company based in Asheville, North Carolina, No Evil Foods, turned out to be run by union busters who ultimately fired all of their production workers so their products could be made more cheaply at a nearby meat co-packing plant. “Just because you're plant-based doesn't mean you're ethical,” says Broad.

This is one example, of course, and it’s nowhere near the scale of harm wrought by the meatpacking industry. But the No Evil Food example does get at the criticism often lobbied at vegan solutions embedded in capitalist systems: An ingredient swap, even a really good one, doesn’t fix systemic problems.

What Will a Just Transition for Food Workers Look Like?

Researchers and advocates are just beginning to look at what a “just transition” to a future plant-based economy might look like—programs helping dairy farmers raise oats, or initiatives helping corn farmers who grow their produce for livestock feed and ethanol switch to cultivating field peas.

At the moment, this transition is almost entirely speculative, however, and does not really consider workers at all. That’s largely because there is as yet no plant-based economy that has actually displaced animal agriculture, no denizen of meatpacking workers laid off by surging levels of plant-based production. Meat consumption hasn’t declined, nor have meat company profits: Both have gone up. The meat industry is looking to hire more workers, in fact, just as Lagally is trying to find them, too.

Yet this transition could (and should) still happen in the future—the latest IPCC report includes shifting to plant-based diets in its climate mitigation recommendations. One just transition report found plant-based agriculture could create more jobs than it eliminates. A 2020 Inter-American Development Bank paper found that a future plant-based agriculture system in Latin America and the Caribbean could add “19 million more full-time equivalent employees in 2030 in the decarbonization scenario than in the high-emissions scenario.” In other words, the plant-based agriculture sector would create a 54% increase in jobs over the high-emissions scenario. For comparison, the renewable energy sector has potential to produce just 22% growth in the same scenario.

The report isn’t a prediction, however. It’s an idea of what’s possible if governments and companies invest deeply and thoughtfully in decarbonization, which would be a tall order. Indeed, that kind of growth would take not only serious investment, but commitments from meat and vegan food companies to help transition not only ranchers and livestock farmers, but also slaughterhouse workers and communities around meat processing plants and concentrated animal farming operations.

Lagally is one of the more thoughtful and circumspect CEOs in the plant-based space, admitting the company’s lag in offering benefits to all employees and the limits of what Rebellyous can do in the food system. The company chose to use wheat and soy proteins because farmers grow them now. But that kind of thinking—and transparency—has been lacking from other plant-based and also cultured meat companies, which are notoriously secretive.

Retraining slaughterhouse workers to process vegan nuggets may not be the answer anyway. “Just because they've worked in slaughterhouses doesn't mean they wanted to be there to begin with,” says Broad, or that they’re even interested in being trained for automated work that keeps them working in the food industry.

To go from magical thinking to meaningful action, food system advocates and vegan capitalists alike need to be willing to talk about failures and gaps in their understanding.

What might work better is something like ecosystem restoration, says Broad, rewilding projects including reforestation and rewetting peatlands that are managed by the people who live and work in the region, which he also points out is an underinvested area of climate mitigation. The kinds of restoration projects that succeed at mitigating emissions tend to be the ones that aren’t mass tree-planting schemes but locally-led efforts that also benefit the livelihoods of surrounding communities. The benefits would extend beyond climate emissions too. Since communities near concentrated animal feeding operations and slaughterhouses experience worse rates of asthma and other illnesses from air and water pollution caused in large part by meat production, ecosystem restoration and environmental repair projects are desperately needed.

Discussions about food system change can also shift for the better. For years, most white animal rights advocates gave very little consideration to broader social and economic problems in our food system beyond animal ethics, says Broad. In food justice spaces, there’s still a “very romantic vision of small and local animal food production,” where happy, grass-fed cows on small farms conserve carbon and also give their lives willingly to become affordable steaks and burgers. “That it's all just going to kind of work by magic,” he says. And ignores the small boutique farms selling a utopian ideal while they’re routinely exploiting underpaid interns.

To go from magical thinking to meaningful action, food system advocates and vegan capitalists alike need to be willing to talk about failures and gaps in their understanding—admit where things aren’t working out. We don’t need to burn plant-based capitalism to the ground. Those of us who care about animals and social justice need to be demanding better from meat and plant-based companies, pushing for better regulation of animal agriculture, actual enforcement of pollution restrictions, and deep investments in a just transition from government and corporations.

We also need to be willing to listen. Ask workers what they want to do. Ask communities what they need, says Broad. “That's the task of a just transition.”