Squeaky Bean was started in 2019 by two employees of Winterbotham Darby as a pilot to test new ingredients and flavours for vegan meat alternatives. It has since grown rapidly and is one of the hottest food brands in vegan circles. Their Kick of Tikka product is the vegan answer to the popular Indian delicacy Chicken Tikka. It is a high protein meat-substitute with an amount of protein comparable to actual Chicken Tikka thanks to the wheat and pea protein used to make it. Although the sleeve and tray that it comes in is widely recyclable across the UK, it is sealed with plastic film that isn’t widely recycled. What isn’t as clear, however, is how and where they source their ingredients and the manufacturing process they go through to make their product. Differences in these factors can lead to massively disparate environmental and social outcomes, which is why it is crucial that Squeaky Bean and their parent company disclose this information and allow consumers to make informed decisions. This opacity leads them to score lower than might be expected for an ostensibly sustainable alternative to meat.
With a protein content of 22g per 100g and low sugar and saturated fat contents of 0.9g and 4g per 100g respectively, the Kick of Tikka ticks the nutritional box.
On the environmental front, the picture is more mixed.
While the recyclable sleeve and plastic tray are positive materials choices, the use of plastic film to seal the product is not. Plastic film isn’t recycled across most of the UK as its high tensile strength and usually small size cause it to frequently clog the machinery used at Materials Recovery Facilities.
Although the ingredients list is long, most items are immediately recognisable and of little concern. Their use of pea protein is a positive choice as pea plants are often labelled “regenerative crops”. This is because pea plants have a symbiotic relationship with the soil bacteria (such as Rhizobia) that fixes atmospheric Nitrogen. Growing peas therefore enriches the Nitrogen content of the soil making it more fertile for the subsequent growth of other crops. Squeaky Bean’s use of ingredients derived from wheat and corn, however, is a cause for concern given that they do not disclose where they source their ingredients from. Both wheat and corn are frequently grown in monocultures that can be devastating for biodiversity and soil fertility. Where these crops are grown also has a large impact for several reasons. The first is that it influences how much fertiliser is used, which in turn impacts the greenhouse gas emissions associated with growing the crop. Growing location also affects the water footprint of these crops - between 500 and 4,000 litres of water is needed to produce a kilogram of wheat, with the suitability of the climate it’s grown being key to this 8-fold difference. And lastly, with the product being manufactured in the UK, the distance the wheat and corn need to travel before making it to the UK have a large effect on the travel greenhouse gas emissions of the product.
In this section, the product only has one known drawback: its use of plastic film. What holds the score back is the lack of information about other important constitutional elements of the product and Squeaky Bean could increase their score if they switched to a better alternative to plastic film and disclosed where they source their ingredients.
While Squeaky Bean and their parent company do not disclose the details of how they produce their food, there are a couple of points worth noting. Squeaky Bean is a nascent brand but they have been so successful in the short time since their inception that their parent company Winterbotham Darby have decided to build a second plant-based factory to meet consumer demand. This second factory in Milton Keynes has already received an A grade on an audit conducted by the British Retail Consortium (a comprehensive look into food safety that looks into the site standards, process protocols and personnel management among other key areas). Squeaky Bean were also announced the Plant-Based Manufacturer of the Year at the 2021 Food Manufacture Excellence Awards, which is no small feat considering how new they are.
The achievements above indicate good health and safety practices and indicate that they look after their employees, earning Squeaky Bean some minimum credit. However, they do not give any indication of the environmental impact their manufacturing processes have. Their processes could be water or energy intensive or both and may also result in direct emissions or other environmental impacts too. Without any information disclosed by the brand or their parent company it’s hard to award the products points in this section.
Squeaky Bean is a brand owned by Winterbotham Darby who were acquired by the French Private Equity (“PE”) firm Pai Partners in 2019. Pai also acquired Addo Food Group at the same time and have merged the two to form The Compleat Food Group. Pai Partners are not in fact the first PE shareholders of Winterbotham Darby after the British PE firms LDC and Equistone invested in them in 2011 and 2012 respectively. Winterbotham Darby are a chilled foods business specialising traditionally in chilled olives, antipasti and continental meats with a recent pivot towards plant-based foods with the introduction of Squeaky Bean and becoming the exclusive UK partner for Vivera. Squeaky Bean was introduced in 2019 with three SKUs and has now grown to 18 that are sold across major UK retailers and on Occado.
Winterbotham Darby or their owners aren’t a listed company and don’t disclose a lot of sustainability information. They do have one SMART goal of reducing food waste by 50% across their UK operations by 2030, however, their 3.6% reported progress isn’t contextualised to a start date and so it’s hard to tell how much progress they are making. In fact, assuming the best case scenarios of a linear progression and the target being set a year ago, then they are only on track to reach just over 30% by 2030 so it is more likely that they are not on track to meet this target. In terms of other aspects of their sustainability, Winterbotham Darby make a few vague statements on their website but don’t disclose anything concrete about their suppliers or other key environmental and social data. This means that the consumer doesn’t know whether their farmers are being exploited or there is child labour being used to produce their raw ingredients or whether any other unethical practices take place along the way. Disclosing this information and pursuing certifications would be positive steps that would enable awarding Squeaky Bean a higher score in this area.
One last thing worth mentioning is the advertising campaign that Squeaky Bean undertook in late 2021, which was a 21 day “celebrity house” themed program. Squeaky Bean had both vegan and non-vegan food influencers post videos to apply to live on a vegan diet for 21 days in their “Squeaky House” (a 10-room mansion rented for the program). During the 21 days these influencers then had to work together to make new recipes and a vegan diet as easy and enjoyable as possible, which I thought was a very cool concept.