About the person: Josh Balk, Vice President of farm animal protection organisation, The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and co-founder of a food manufacturing company, called JUST. Besides the production of delicious plant-based alternatives, the company works on the development of 'Clean Meat', too. In the interview Josh Balk reveals more about the company itself, the products and talks about his experience with 'Clean Meat'.
Josh, you are the co-founder of the startup Hampton Creek, now named JUST. You are known to be extremely passionate about plant-based alternatives and very driven to make it succeed. Where did your initial inspiration and motivation come from?
At the Humane Society of the United States, my team works along with the world's largest food companies on their animal welfare policies. Through this work, I saw a need for these companies to offer delicious, affordable plant-based products that would replace factory farmed animal products, all the while appealing to the mainstream consumer. I think we win for animals when these types of products are purchased by vegans and meat-eaters alike. With that in mind, I thought I could make a difference by starting something myself, along with my good buddy who I founded the company with.
What happened since then? What does the name JUST stand for and how many people work there currently?
I'm so incredibly proud of what the company has accomplished since its founding. It's launched products like dressing, cookies, cookie dough, and mayo which are available throughout the largest grocers in the U.S. It's even selling Just Scramble – a plant-based liquid egg that cooks up just like scrambled eggs – in Hong Kong. The name JUST perfectly espouses its mission: a more just and equitable food system, and simplicity of ingredients. The company has about 120 staff.
It all started with the development of a plant-based mayo. Now, JUST has expanded to a variety of plant-based food alternatives, including an egg-free scrambled egg product. What is your personal favorite product?
As someone who grow up eating and loving eggs, I'm most excited about the Just Scramble product. It cooks and tastes just like eggs, only it's made from plants—in specific mung beans, and legumes that've been consumed for thousands of years. It's a great source of protein, has a clean ingredient label, and most importantly is incredibly delicious. I think it's going to be a real game-changer.
Why are you focusing on chicken and eggs?
Whether it's my team's work at the Humane Society of the United States passing laws, creating corporate policies, or partnering with the food service industry on plant-based initiatives, or it was the founding of JUST, I've focused on chickens simply because they comprise the greatest number of animals confined in factory farms and they also suffer immensely. I'm hoping to make the biggest impact I can in my lifetime and reducing the suffering of these poor animals is my life's pursuit. Most egg-laying hens are confined in cages so small, they're unable to even spread their wings. Virtually all chickens in the meat industry have been genetically manipulated to grow so big and fast they're in tremendous pain by the end of their brief lives. These abuses are unconscionable and I’m committed to doing something about it.
Everybody knows that taste is one of the most important factors for a successful meat alternative product. Would you say JUST’s products taste just like ‘real’ eggs?
I’ve been vegan for 17 years so I don’t trust my own palate! But I’ve eaten JUST’s eggs with people who routinely eat eggs and they seem to really enjoy it.
JUST or Hampton Creek rather, which is the company behind JUST, also develops Clean meat. Have you already tried it?
I’ve tried clean meat from JUST and other companies, as well. While I haven't eaten meat in decades, I think it's pretty darn good! I'm vegan for ethical reasons – because I don't want to cause suffering. Clean meat represents a powerful option for people, who like me, don't want to contribute to animal's suffering, but still desire the taste of meat. But more importantly, Clean meat is for the vast majority who currently do eat meat and perhaps aren't as likely to shift to a more humane, sustainable diet.
Whom would you say Clean meat is the most suitable target for? (vegetarians, meat eaters, flexitarians, vegans?)
The hope for Clean meat is that it appeals to everyday meat-eaters. I hope that we get to the point in society when clean meat is so delicious and affordable that it's the default meat sold in grocery stores and restaurants; that even if a consumer doesn't care about ethics that person still chooses Clean meat versus the meat that came from a factory farmed animal.
Do you think Clean meat has the potential to end industrial farming of animals or will the overall meat consumption increase once it hits the market?
I think there's a chance, especially in conjunction with the amazing plant-based products being developed these days. Factory farming will be eliminated when the alternatives to animal-based foods are more efficient, taste better, and are just higher quality products. In the beginning of the 19th century the animal movement focused its energy on helping horses used in transportation. It wasn't a societal shift of sentiment that ended the abuses of those animals, though. It was the advent of the car. Will clean meat have the same impact on animal agribusiness as Henry Ford had on the horse drawn carriage industry? There's a real shot.
I think that the overall meat consumption is so incredibly high right now that it's hard to imagine a scenario in which clean meat increases it. My best guess is that consumers will start to eat less animal meat due to consuming both plant-based and clean meat.
You are focusing on the US and Asian market. Why is the Asian market so interesting?
The main reason why Asia is so important are the numbers – a massive population and an expanding need for protein. Along with these exploding numbers has come factory farming production methods which the animal protection movement is addressing, as well as more protein consumption which companies like JUST can address with its products.
And last but not least - what does animal welfare mean to you and what is your favorite meal?
What animals in factory farms and slaughterhouses are subjected to is an incredible injustice. These are innocent creatures who did nothing wrong, yet we subject them to pain, fear, and loneliness. It's an ultimate act of bullying simply because they're unable to speak out on their own behalf. I can't live with myself if I don't dedicate my life to helping to end their suffering.
On a lighter note, I'm a huge Ethiopian food fan!