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By: Matthew Adam Smith

AI Comes to Expo West

Applegate’s Mission to Revolutionize the Food Industry

To the uninitiated, Natural Products Expo West might feel like a cross between the world’s largest Whole Foods on steroids and the Disneyland located just across the street. The undisputed trade show king of the Wellness space, it draws thousands of pilgrims to the Anaheim Convention Center every spring, each in search of the next big thing in natural, sustainable, and organic products–and with the fervor of a Swiftie. This year, I joined more than 67,000 earnest idealists and corporate strategists, and over 3,300 companies, for the three days of the year that will chart the course of an industry projected to surpass $300 billion in annual sales.

For Joe O’Connor, President of Applegate, this year’s show was a unique moment in a career spent leading sales at some of the biggest names in Big Food. This was the year that Applegate released their first-ever Mission Report, an impressive accounting of the company’s longstanding contributions to sustainability and organic foods, and an aggressive plan to radically up the ante by accelerating their push into regenerative agriculture.

When I met Joe on the show floor and he mentioned AI within the first 30 seconds, my initial skepticism quickly vanished.

“The future of our food is regenerative, and AI will be central to making it happen,” he said. The Mission Report isn’t your everyday glossy virtue-signal; it’s a manifesto outlining Applegate’s comprehensive approach to regenerative agriculture, sustainability, and even their DE&I initiatives. As O’Connor succinctly puts it, “We’re changing the meat we eat.” Applegate is striving to move not just their own company, but an entire industry, beyond the legacy monikers of “organic” and “natural,” pushing towards a food system where regenerative agriculture is at the core.

To Joe, “regenerative” is more than just another buzzword in the corporate lexicon–it’s a comprehensive and far-reaching approach focused on restoring soil health, biodiversity, and ecosystem functions while ensuring profitability across a value chain that stretches from the farmers all the way to your kitchen table. It’s a position clearly supported by the recent Deloitte report, Unleashing Sustainable Value in Food & Agriculture, which revealed that 98% of food and agriculture companies experienced financial value from sustainability investments, with 79% experiencing at least 2% revenue growth and 74% reporting cost reductions.

Applegate’s “Do Good Dog” was an important test of this hypothesis: an all-natural hot dog made from grass-fed beef raised on verified regenerative grasslands, which has seen massive uptake by consumers. Up next, the company has committed to transitioning all its hot dogs to 100% beef sourced from verified regenerative grasslands by 2025, while also working to scale up regenerative sourcing across other species and product categories. O’Connor admits the immensity of such an undertaking: “It’s the right thing to do, but it requires a completely new approach to our supply chain and retail partners.” It’s a feat that will surely require an even greater coordinated effort than was made in the organic space these past several years.

So where does AI fit into all of this? The ability to accurately forecast demand and inventory helps companies of all kinds minimize risk and improve efficiency, and Joe believes that predictive modeling through AI will play a massive role in scaling regenerative agriculture practices. “Predictive AI can help us understand how far we can grow this business. It’s about reducing liabilities for both manufacturers and retailers,” he says. And he’s not alone. According to the Deloitte report, 72% of food and agriculture companies believe that AI can help improve inventory management and reduce waste.

Companies like Regrow AG are integrating AI software with hi-tech hardware at the farms, where “IoT” (Internet of Things) sensors in the field are increasingly allowing farmers to gather real-time data on soil health, moisture levels, and crop growth, enabling more precise irrigation, fertilization, and pest control. Per Deloitte, 65% of food and agriculture companies see opportunities in deploying AI and IoT together for better demand forecasting and crop production, resulting in improved yield and reduced environmental impact. And 79% believe that integrating AI into regenerative agriculture practices will contribute to better financial returns in the long run.

Across the food value chain, AI is enabling “foodtech” companies like NotCo to formulate plant-based foods with the taste, texture, and smell of their animal-based counterparts; Strella to sense and predict produce shelf life, increasing freshness and reducing shrink; and Planet—>FWD  to provide granular data about a product’s climate footprint at the supplier, ingredient, or even farm-level. “In many cases, AI and machine learning are breathing new life into existing technologies—increasing efficiency, effectiveness, or enabling greater speed or scale,” says Keith Anderson, founder of Decarbonize.co.

But it’s not just about the tech. Collaboration remains central to scaling regenerative agriculture. Deloitte estimates that 84% of companies are currently co-investing with partners across the food value chain to fund their sustainability strategies, and 43% are doing so with upstream suppliers. Applegate partners with organizations like the Savory Institute and Land to Market to build sustainable supply chains and source regenerative products. They also invest in small-scale farmers through partnerships with the American Farmland Trust, providing them with loans to support their shift to regenerative practices. On the need for cooperation across the food industry, Joe takes the long view, saying, “We’re all better off if we build these systems together. It can’t just be about rivals competing for market share; it’s about an industry-wide alignment that’s critical to ensuring the longevity of regenerative practices.”

Encouraging wholesalers to extend hands across the aisle is one thing, but driving real change also means winning over both retailers and the end consumers. O’Connor stresses the importance of aligning with retailers’ corporate goals to capture their attention amid the daily influx of sales pitches retailers face. “We’re sharing our innovations early and developing long-term planning together.”

While “natural channel” leaders like Whole Foods and Sprouts have long been core doors for Applegate, partnerships with mass big boxes like Walmart are a more recent evolution, as they have expanded their assortments to include more niche offerings and price points, and added operational capabilities to handle the shorter shelf life of natural products. Outside of brick-and-mortar, Applegate also leverages e-commerce channels like Instacart, where they’ve found extreme loyalty among natural and organic consumers. “Our partnership with Instacart helps us reach loyalists, but it also drives broader consumer education on sustainability,” O’Connor says.

Perhaps the most novel aspect of Applegate’s approach to regenerative agriculture is its fusion to their work in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I), where they are applying this dual focus to their supply chain relationships. Recognizing that building diverse farming networks requires investment, their partnership with the American Farmland Trust does double duty to support not only small-scale farmers, but equally farmers of all sizes from diverse backgrounds. “We’re at the beginning stages of a three-year build to make a real impact, and every stakeholder matters,” O’Connor explains. Their Mission Report states that 95% of Applegate products were sourced from suppliers that meet DE&I standards.

By the end of our chat at the “Mecca” of Wellness that is Expo West, I understood that Applegate’s investment in regenerative agriculture is much more than a strategic business decision–it’s an audacious mission to change how the world eats meat. As Joe O’Connor puts it, “We call ourselves the gateway to greater good, not just for this generation, but also the future”–a message that surely landed well on the show floor and left this author with the kind of hope that far outweighed the countless bags of natural product samples carried out the door by more than 67,000 believers.

Applegate is charting a path toward a truly regenerative food industry that’s powered by new models, new tech and new partnerships—one hot dog at a time.