Heather Mills, the entrepreneur, self-proclaimed philanthropist, investor and long-time vegan advocate, talks to Just Food after buying the UK factory of Plant & Bean, which went into administration in June.

Mills owns the vegan business VBites, formed in 2009 when she bought Redwood Wholefoods. It supplies a range of products from cheese to meat-free, falafels and fish fingers. VBites is poised to launch what she calls the “next generation” of vegan foods, or “clean, innovative plant-based foods” that are friendly on the gut – probably to coincide with Veganuary.

Just Food: What was your thinking behind the purchase of the Plant & Bean factory in Lincolnshire?

Heather Mills: I got a text from friends saying Plant & Bean had gone under so I called the administrators and said can I come up to the factory. I put an offer in immediately to pay off all the debt and buy it from the administrators.

I would like to put in about 20 different brands and get a co-manufacturing system going so they can be competitive in the market. It makes no sense that loads of people keep opening up factories [before they’ve built market share]. The most cost-effective way is to use one or two big plant-based co-manufacturers, work with the universities who are doing R&D, and scale there.

It’s about how many people can we fit in there and how many companies need to have 100% plant-based manufacturing facilities? It could be oat milk or vegan ice cream – it could be anything.

JF: You’re talking about offering a private-label service then?

HM: Yes, that would be the main thing. It wouldn’t be VBites because we’ve got our own factories. We don’t need any more scale as I have three or four factories for that.

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I’m helping a lot of start-ups that have reached a ceiling. The government [gives] ten, 50 grand grants to these little companies directly but they don’t look at where they go next and then they can’t grow because they don’t have the next stage investments. They end up going into cross-contaminated meat and dairy factories to get their products made.

JF: You’ve already bought the plant?

HM: I got it in 48 hours. Everybody was trying to grab it, all the big corporates. But the good thing about being an independent is you can move at speed, whereas the corporates have to do 10 million bits of due diligence and blah, blah, blah. Because I’ve been in manufacturing for decades, I can walk a factory, know exactly what it can do and what it can’t do.

JF: You’re not buying the Plant & Bean brand?

HM: No, no, no. It comes with it but I don’t want to use that. What I’m trying to do is bring many companies together so that we can create co-manufacturing, lots of little hubs, because Plant & Bean wasn’t big enough to have a factory like that.

To justify turning a huge factory like that on, you only do that when you’ve got the volume to do so. The reason these companies go under is because they turn huge factories on too soon.

They scale up and then the company just floods cash and the investors want to put their own management teams in and they don’t understand the vegan sector. They want to run it like Coca-Cola but it’s only a tiny company.

People think they’ve got an IP but, actually, when we look at it, we say you haven’t. I think I’ve only seen one real IP thing in 30 years that we don’t already do.

JF: How big is the Lincolnshire plant?

HM: It’s 120,000 square feet. It was a Marks and Spencer plant. It’s a top-range facility with all drainage, white walling, fridges and freezes. It’s got absolutely everything there.

You could switch it on tomorrow and start manufacturing with right the team. But we need to make sure that it’s justified otherwise you’re just making products at a loss because your overheads are massive.

We need to fill it out but I need to go through all the portfolios of people that have contacted me. I’d like to start really doing farm-to-fork because there’s a lot of agriculture land around that area. And then get some real energy efficiency in there, [with] mini wind turbines.

JF: It sounds like a long-term project?

HM: It will probably take six to nine months I would say at the earliest from start to finish to get all of the right groups together that have any longevity in the plant-based sector.

The plant-based category has really gone backwards because of Brexit and Covid. But also because of people not looking at the macro and planning.

JF: What do you make of the current struggles in the plant-based category, Quorn for instance?

HM: The problem with Quorn is that they use too many manufacturing facilities and I warned them of this because they were heavily dependent on Europe for their main manufacturing. They had 32 hubs in Europe manufacturing for them, so they just didn’t plan well.

The plant-based category has really gone backwards because of Brexit and Covid. But also because of people not looking at the macro and planning.

JF: Could we expect to see more market failures like The Meatless Farm?

HM: You do get some companies where they have a couple of good products and they start expanding their range. But I think a lot of money waste has happened when you look at the exorbitant amounts of investment that have gone into these companies – Meatless Farm spent an absolute fortune.

Fingers crossed for them with VFC [Foods] pulling them out, but I don’t have high hopes because they really need to do a massive turnaround and, as soon as you talk about the word administration, the supermarkets lose faith. It’s very, very hard to pull them back.

But what needs to happen is governments need to get more involved in supporting ethical businesses that are going to create better human health.

JF: What’s your outlook for the category in general, whether it’s meat alternatives or dairy-free or vegan?

HM: First of all, we have to re-educate the public on why they need to go plant-based.

If you’re unhealthy, you’re a burden on the NHS. ’s a burden on the taxpayer. If you’re buying meat and dairy, you’re paying for it two-fold – you think you’re getting a discounted price but it’s coming out of your taxes.

You need to look at the farmers, how they’re going to survive. All the solutions are there. The government just doesn’t support it and they keep going into the wrong areas and throwing money away.

I think what’s going to happen to the category is this. The meat-free category is going to stagnate while the message is confusing. And then eventually people are going to work out ’Oh, actually yes, that’s why I was going to buy that product in the first place because I am really unhealthy or I want to help the environment or I do love animals, or all of the above.’

But the thing that’s not going to go backwards is the dairy-free category because Starbucks, Costa, and all the big players that we manufacture for – Glanbia, Norseland, for instance – they are making money and have a piece of the vegan pie.

And as much as people can stagnate on meat-free, there is a huge lactose intolerance. There is a huge amount of scientific proof that dairy is even worse than meat and switches the cancer cell on.

JF: What about the dairy-free potential beyond plant-based milks?

HM: The companies we [VBites] make for, it’s massively growing. We do all the cheese for Domino’s and they’re wanting to add more. Vegan Domino’s pizzas are doing really well.

Cheese is not doing as well [in general] because the product is not as good. It’s about what’s the marketing, what’s the message as long as it tastes great. The problem is a lot of the products on the shelves are not very good, they put people off.

JF: What about precision fermentation – said to solve the stretch and melt challenge?

HM: We’ve done that for 20-odd years, it’s nothing new. It’s just people know what they know now and they think it’s innovative and it’s not.

Fermentation is great but the next generation of foods is gut-friendly foods because, as soon as you get over 50, your hydrochloric acid and pepsin levels reduce. So the stuff you could eat when you were younger, you suddenly can’t digest properly, it starts to ferment in your gut.

You become intolerant to fructans, you’re suddenly wondering: ‘Why was that cauliflower fine 20 years ago, and now I’m bloated and with acid reflux?’ Our next generation of foods are going to be gut-healthy, clean foods as well as all the dairy-free.

JF: Do probiotics and prebiotics feature then in the gut health space?

HM: No because the problem of probiotics and prebiotics is, if you have a slow motility gut and the gut that has been purified with meat, it can have a gas-creating effect. So you have to introduce those things really slowly because you haven’t got the microbiome to deal with it that you had.

JF: Ingredients like beans?

HM: Beans would be a nightmare. They are an oligosaccharide so they create gas and wind. They [the products] will be free from fructan, sorbitol, mannitol, fructose, and oligosaccharides, but with all the vitamins and nutrients. They won’t have any beans or certain types of fruits that can create issues with certain people’s guts.

This is something I did ten years ago but the plant-based sector wasn’t ready for it. Now people are starting to educate themselves that 90% of our serotonin is made in our gut, so if we’re not looking after our gut, we’re not happy. We’re getting misdiagnosed with depression, when it’s all gut related, as well as menopause and hormones and God knows what else, low testosterone in men.

JF: What will be the base protein of these next-generation foods

HM: It would be oat, fava and algae proteins but you wouldn’t use pea protein as it’s a fructan. It will basically be all proteins that don’t create inflammation and gas, so gluten-free oats and algae protein isolates and things that are calming for the gut, alongside vegetables and quinoa.

But we don’t want to be heavily dependent on quinoa because ’s going to have to be shipped in and I want to really focus on stuff that can be grown in the UK for the UK. And then, as we expand out, once we prove a route to market of a certain volume, then those products need to be manufactured in the country.