Fry it, you might like it

2008-08-20 00:00

WALLY and Debbie Fry are that rare blend of commerce and principle. Both committed vegetarians, they measure their success not so much by the money they make from their pioneering vegetarian products but by the number of animals they save from slaughter.

“Sure, we’ve made money, but it’s not the reason we started this business,” says Wally from the Fry’s factory in Westmead. “All I’m saying is that you can’t get into a business simply to make money. It’s not sustainable.

In the 16 years of the company’s existence, the Frys say they’ve consistently refused to compromise on their commitment to quality and the ethics of vegetarianism — what Wally calls the “moral high ground”.

“Once we lose that, we lose the essence of our gift,” he says.

It’s a philosophy that’s worked well for them and has seen the company become a South African leader in the field of vegetarian meat alternatives. Fry’s is well on its way to reaching its vision to be “the brand leader of vegetarian alternatives worldwide”. Wally estimates that by the end of next year, 50% of the company’s market share will come from international markets.

How did it all start? Fed up with his work as a building contractor, Wally, now 57, set up a little research and development laboratory. At that stage he’d been a vegetarian for about four or five years and was “passionate about not eating meat”. His wife, Debbie (49), who had been his partner in the building business, describes herself as being “born a vegetarian”. “I’ve never wanted to eat meat,” she says. “Not even as a child.”

Wally worked “feverishly” for about 18 months before stumbling upon a new way of combining wheat and soya proteins.

“All of a sudden, from the basis of ignorance, I had knowledge that no-one else had,” he says.

Wally calls it “divine inspiration with a dash of food science brilliance”. Whatever happened, Wally and Debbie realised that they’d created something unique: all-vegetarian food which had a striking resemblance to meat in terms of texture, taste and nutritional value. “Protam is the name of the technology we use to make Fry’s,” says Wally.

Fry’s launched itself on the market with four products: two kinds of sausages, a burger and hotdogs. “At that stage, we were proud to make 50 kilograms a day. Now we make about 90 tons a week,” says Wally.

Today, the Fry’s range comprises 14 products and a new range of chicken-style strips and burgers is about to hit the shelves in KwaZulu-Natal. The new Fry’s factory, which sits proudly on a hill in Westmead and was built to be four times as big as their previous factory, has been open for nearly three years and employs around 300 people. Debbie says they are close to outgrowing it.

But Fry’s is still a family enterprise. Debbie and Wally along with Tammy and Hayley (two of their daughters) as well as their husbands are all part of the business.

“We hit the market at the right time,” says Debbie of their initial successes. In the early nineties, consciousness around health was growing. According to Debbie, many of their customers are not strict vegetarians, but moderate meat-eaters with an eye on healthy eating.

The Frys have gone to great lengths to ensure that their products comply with stringent international vegetarian standards, all of which are reflected on their packaging.

The company is also one of 19 in South Africa with ISO 22 000: 2005 registration, which guarantees adherence to a stringent food safety management system.

Ideally, the Frys say they are helping to convert people to plant-based diets by giving them nutritionally sound alternatives to meat.

The Frys say they don’t go around attacking people for eating meat. They merely try to offer “a solution” to what is increasingly being recognised as a brutal industry that has a devastating impact on the environment.

Wally believes people won’t change to vegetarianism unless they’re “good and ready”. “But it’s good for people to know certain things,” he says.

Like the fact that the livestock industry produces more global warming greenhouse gases (as measured in carbon dioxide equivalents) than all of the world’s transport systems, including planes (see box).

And what do the Frys eat at home? Fry’s of course. “We eat it all the time,” laughs Debbie. “Why do you think we’re constantly bringing out new ranges?”

What livestock does to the planet

A report titled “Livestock’s Long Shadow” produced by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculturel Organisation in late 2006 found that:

• Livestock production is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions, a bigger share than that of transport. It accounts for nine percent of carbon dioxide emissions and generates even bigger shares of emissions of other gases with greater potential to warm the atmosphere: as much as 37% of methane, mostly from enteric fermentation by ruminants, and 65% of nitrous oxide, mostly from manure.

• The livestock sector (grazing and feed crop production) is the single largest user of land. Seventy percent of previously forested land in the Amazon is used as pasture, and feed crops cover a large part of the remainder. About 70% of all grazing land in dry areas is considered degraded.

• “Livestock production (mainly irrigation of feed crops) accounts for eight percent of human water use in the world. It is also the largest source of water pollutants: animal wastes, antibiotics, hormones, chemicals from tanneries, fertilisers and pesticides used for feed crops, and sediments from eroded pastures.

• Livestock are taking over natural habitats and pose a threat to the Earth’s biodiversity. In 306 of the 825 terrestrial eco-regions identified by the Worldwide Fund for Nature, livestock are identified as “a current threat”.

Source: FAO Spotlight Magazine 2006.

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