VegNews: An Interview with Anna Starostinetskaya

June 17, 2024

This is an interview with Anna Starostinetskaya, brilliant operator of the news department at VegNews - "Your ultimate source for all things Vegan".

"What can consumers expect when making the transition from a vegan diet to a vegan lifestyle? Are companies providing access to this transition?"

Consumers can expect continued and sustained shock about how intertwined animal exploitation is in everyday life. Many people choose the plant-based diet element of it first, for many reasons including health and the environment, but when they start digging into the ethical side of consuming animals and learning about common, legal practices—such as burning birds’ beaks to curb their natural desire to engage in pecking under stressed conditions; or separating calves from mothers shortly after birth to capitalize on milk production before sending them to slaughter for veal—they begin to dissect other facets of society build on the commodification of animals. Once people understand that producing wool, leather, slik, beauty products, and dog/cat food is not unlike what goes on in meat, egg, and dairy factories, it can get daunting. 
Luckily, there are many companies that aid in the transition—just a few examples would be LUSH (not a fully vegan beauty company but diligently working toward eliminating animal testing worldwide); Wild Earth (a new vegan dog food company); and MooShoes (a NYC boutique that has been there for everyone in need of quality vegan footwear). There are also so many new developments in vegan textiles made from things like pineapple, apple skins, orange fiber, recycled ocean plastics, and cactus leaves—which solve the problem of the eco-damaging plastics used in many leather/fur alternatives. 

Want to stay at a vegan hotel? Cool, here’s one. Want to drive a vegan car? These are just three options of many (Tesla, Volvo, and Audi). All this is to say that it’s becoming much easier to choose vegan options within all areas of life—oh, and VegNews is pretty great at showing you how. 

"What does 2020 have in store for us when it comes to the vegan industry and change?"

The pandemic has shone a spotlight on the inefficiencies of the global meat industry where workers are commodified much like the animals they are slaughtering by being packed side-by-side, denied breaks and sick leave, and exploited due to immigration status. The profit potential of the meat industry relies heavily on production volume and minimal disruption to the processing line, so cutting corners on welfare issues (in regard to workers and animals) is one of the reasons, along with government subsidies, that meat prices can be kept artificially low for consumers. COVID-19 exposed these practices as the virus swept the crowded meat plants where social distancing and slowing the line puts a big dent in profits. We already know that eating animal products is not sustainable but COVID has shown a new side of the coin: producing animal products is not built on a sustainable foundation because worker exploitation is a vital and purposeful part of the equation. 

So, in 2020, with the horrors that COVID exposed about the global meat industry, I believe consumers will begin making a greater effort to find foods that better serve them and those around them, such as vegan meat. The void left at supermarkets by animal meat shortages are now being filled with expanded vegan meat products (Impossible Foods just launched at 1,700 Kroger and Kroger-owned stores). Vegan meat is becoming better and better tasting while cow/animal meat continues to uniformly stay about the same. It is also becoming cheaper—Beyond Meat just launched a value pack where its vegan burgers cost about $1.60 per patty. Consumers choose products on taste, price, and availability. Vegan meat is becoming a better option in all of those categories as the animal meat industry struggles to save itself while its workers continue to die and its farmers “euthanize” healthy animals due to supply chain disruptions caused by the virus.  

COVID also exposed how unnatural interactions with animals—such as wet animal markets, where many wild species are slaughtered side-by-side—are breeding grounds for disease. Factory farms are no different, aside from the animals they exploit. As such, consumer caution around purchasing products from such environs is rising, as is awareness about supporting industries that put human, environmental, and animal health at risk. 
This is just the meat industry, just in the US. I’ve got a whole different spiel about eggs and dairy and global animal agriculture. But nobody has time for that.

"When it comes to folks wanting to start vegan businesses and CPGs, what are the main roadblocks they face? What could help these businesses get off the ground?"

I honestly believe that in previous years (say, 2015 or so), creating a vegan business came with many roadblocks for the sheer fact that people thought that veganism was a cult and vegan food was yucky. In 2020, that has all changed. From my purview as a journalist, I am pitched so many stories every day about established companies that traditionally only offered non-vegan food wanting to get into the vegan game—and with fervor; check out Ben & Jerry’s, Chobani, and Swiss Miss. Having a vegan offering is now a big advantage. With that in mind, starting a vegan company these days will get you 1) media coverage; 2) investment capital (as there are many firms now that only invest in plant-based brands; 3) support from a trade group (Plant Based Food Association); and 4) support from incubators/accelerators (such as those run by Kellogg’s and others in the same realm looking for the next big vegan brand it can add to its portfolio). 

The roadblocks I see are mostly with saturation of the market. As much as I welcome another vegan burger to the store shelves, there are a lot and consumers are becoming brand loyal to just a few. To get off the ground these days, I think innovation is key—and there is plenty of room for that. Vegan seafood startups are growing exponentially because our ocean health is a big problem to solve with many species to consider.  There is a lot of room to grow in the vegan dairy sector, particularly in creating realistic vegan cheeses (a roadblock to veganism for many-a-vegetarian). I’ve worked with several brands in this realm that are revolutionizing this sector, including Miyoko’s Creamery (which makes tangy, French-style cheeses and recently launched a new line of more affordable, melty ones) and Violife (a brand that originated from Greece that is gaining a lot of traction in the United States).

As a word of further encouragement, plant-based protein companies raised $741 million in the first quarter of 2020—that’s during the pandemic when investor confidence in other sectors was low. My best advice to new CPGs and startups is to go forth boldly with innovation as the industry is ripe for whatever you have to offer. 

"What are some of the most successful vegan brands with mainstream consumers - and why is this so?"

I see this as two categories. On the one hand, legacy brands such as Tofurky and Follow Your Heart (makers of iconic condiment Vegenaise) are the first things “mainstream” consumers reach for due to brand recognition, longevity, and accessibility. On the other, the biggest hits with these consumers are new brands like Beyond Meat, JUST Egg, and Impossible Foods—brands that create bridge products that taste just like things every non-vegan person is used to eating. I believe the approach all of these companies have taken from the beginning is the defining factor: while each product they make is plant-based, they have never exclusively partnered with like-minded partners (so, think Impossible Whoppers at Burger King which come with mayo and are cooked on the same grill as meat), making their products more accessible to the “mainstream.” That’s a departure from what vegan companies previously strived for. The mission is the same: reduce the suffering of animals as much as possible. The approach, however, is very different. For instance, many plant-based meat producers ask to be stocked in the meat section at supermarkets (as opposed to those veggie sections where they have historically been found). This integrative approach creates a kind of normalcy for those products and erases the division between what is considered vegan food and what is not, allowing curious/interested consumers in the meat section to make a swift decision without needing to seek out vegan meats thus creating an easy point of entry for a “mainstream” consumer. 

"Can you name a few of VegNews' favorite vegan startups right now?"

My personal favorite startups are those that are solving unique problems. Silicon Valley-based Perfect Day comes to mind. I visited their facility last year where the founders treated me to some ice cream made with their super interesting yeast-based microflora—which basically produces milk proteins through an acellular process with the guidance of a printed DNA sequence for cow’s milk. This boggled my mind because 1) it’s brilliant and 2) the result was indistinguishable from dairy-based ice cream. Perfect Day just produces the proteins which can then be turned into just about any dairy product on the market, but vegan, and they intend to partner with brands already making those products (as opposed to making consumer-facing goods themselves) to amplify the impact. The thing that stuck with me most was a comment co-founder Ryan Pandya made about Perfect Day being a mechanism for countries achieving protein independence. So many countries can free up land/water/resources that are currently being occupied by dairy cows—particularly island nations and states where these resources are scarce—by using this product to create dairy-identical products. I’m no expert in the global commodities trade but I bet this innovation could give a lot of poorer countries many advantages. 

Another favorite of mine is Seattle-based Rebellyous Foods which was founded by mechanical engineer Christie Lagally. The company is not only making cheap vegan chicken nuggets but creating machinery that will make producing plant-based meats much faster and more efficient than their animal counterparts to really undercut the meat industry in a way that hurts the bottom line.  

"How has VegNews adapted its content during these trying times (pandemic and civil unrest), and what do you think the vegan industry needs right now?"

I can say with zero hesitation that VegNews is a company that I am proud to work for in these trying times. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, our team quickly shifted our approach to best serve our readers—who were suddenly scared and stuck at home for the foreseeable future—through new types of content and support. 

One of our big goals at VegNews is to give diverse voices a platform. With the current, renewed fight to dismantle systemic racism, our team has been working to make sure Black vegans are supported and heard across our platforms. We have created resources (check out our Black-Owned Businesses guide) to help our readers support Black businesses and communities, and not just by a one-off donation but through sustained shopping habits and relationship building. On the news side, I’ve been seeking out Black-owned vegan companies and businesses, stories about Black entrepreneurs and change-makers, and covering issues associated with systemic racism from a vegan lens. 

To point to just a few examples of the incredible work Black vegans are doing:
Louis Hunter—who is the cousin of Philando Castile, an unarmed Black man who was killed by police for doing absolutely nothing in 2016—runs a vegan, social-justice driven restaurant in Minneapolis called Trio Plant Based, which he shut down to feed protesters during the beginning of the George Floyd protests. Entrepreneur Pinky Cole—who founded Atlanta’s Slutty Vegan—has given back to the Black community in so many ways that I’ve lost count, including paying for scholarships to send Rayshard Brooks’ four kids to college; providing meals to essential workers during the pandemic; and launching a year-long voting campaign to inspire people to get to the polls this voting cycle. And John Lewis, a fitness expert and social-justice activist who is working with What the Health co-director Keegan Kuhn on a new film called They’re Trying to Kill Us which explores the intersections of diet, poverty, and racism, through the lens of hip-hop culture.  
What does the vegan industry need right now? It needs to celebrate its victories, continue the momentum forward, and take an anti-racist stance to fight for the end of all forms of oppression—because at the heart of it, that is what veganism is all about.
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