At the beginning of 2016, General Mills announced a new acquisition: EPIC Provisions, based out of Austin, TX. Committed to the tagline, “feed others as you wish to be fed,” EPIC began as a solution to the lack of packaged, animal protein bar options on the market. Founders Katie Forrest and Taylor Collins created their own bars combining meat and other ingredients as a savory counter to the sweet-granola-power-protein-bars so abundantly available at any retailer offering foodstuffs. Valuing humane treatment of the animals we eat, Forrest and Collins sought out responsible suppliers that raised grass-fed meat and were committed to the same ideals EPIC on which was founded. After the success of their initial bars, they expanded into other offerings, including trail mixes, and ultimately entered into a General Mills partnership.
Following in the footsteps of their 2014 purchase of Annie’s Homegrown, General Mills seems to be seeking out companies that focus on health, ingredients, and sourcing over profit. The purchase of both Annie’s and EPIC allows them to pivot their offerings toward growing customer demands, while still maintaining the products that made them one of the leading CPG companies that they are today. That’s not to say that General Mills hasn’t been trying to clean up the products they already offer; facing criticism for the ingredient decks of their cereals, the company has recently made over nearly all of its cereals so that they can now claim no artificial colors and flavors amongst their ingredients. Though admittedly just a drop in the bucket, the moves towards cleaning up their own products and acquiring companies with more holistic values are evidence that General Mills isn’t content to stick to “how we’ve always done it.”
That doesn’t mean there are not concerns as to how this will pan out moving forward. A growing company that is focused on grass-fed, humanely processed meat could run into trouble as sourcing becomes more and more difficult. Certain meats—like beef, chicken, and pork—have been the focus of humane treatment for quite some time, but not without various criticisms as to what that actually means in practice. While the methods of treatment for those animals evolve, diversifying animal protein sources is becoming more of an interest to consumers, and it’s difficult to determine what that will look like realistically and financially for companies as they expand their meaty horizons. For instance, The Honest Bison, which provides EPIC with their bison, uses ranchers that practice Holistic Management—a method that involves growing native grasses that are in turn used to feed the animals. It’s an admirable approach that seems entirely possible when you compare 500,000 bison to the 90 million cattle currently in the United States. But what happens if bison becomes a more appealing and sought after protein source? Turning bison into a commodity will abandon that which EPIC was based on by turning bison into cattle, and principle into profit.
This is not to doom EPIC from the get-go. Ideally, diversification of protein sources will allow for humane animal treatment to be more widespread and accessible, part of their initial goal from the start, and it is fascinating that General Mills is looking to involve themselves with companies that will not largely impact their financial profile, no matter how many new customers these smaller brands bring in. EPIC remains optimistic that “this acquisition is not about General Mills changing EPIC but rather EPIC changing General Mills,” and many hope that they are right. However, as more of these small-scale, hopeful operations become successful and more appealing to those with the capacity to buy them out, it will be interesting to track if their values will continue to align with the consumers who supported them from the start, or if they will diverge towards the thinking patterns of big business. Reading these trends and following the relationships of the little guys with their new owners will be important to understanding consumer perceptions and how far companies can go before losing their trust. What will be the opinions of EPIC’s original customers? How will new buyers react to their products? Understanding the answers to these questions will be key in making sure this EPIC acquisition does not become an epic failure.