Phony Baloney

Although veganism has been popular for years, it is still on the rise. Now that numerous options of vegan burger are available in the supermarket and in restaurants, vegans desire an even better burger: one that tastes delicious and is environmentally cautious. Impossible Foods, a company that uses science to make plant-based meat substitutes, served up a burger no one could refuse. In 2016 they released a delicious patty that gives one the sensory experiences of a real burger and could save land, water, and greenhouse gas emissions. However, even the 100% vegan, 100% gluten-free, and 100% scrumptious Impossible Burger has faced scrutiny. While it prides itself in being made animal-free, Impossible Foods has conducted animal testing in the past.

Part One: What is Impossible Foods?

California based Impossible Foods is a popular plant-based “meat” creator. They rose to fame in 2016 when they created a vegan burger that sizzles like fat, tastes similar to a real burger, and bleeds like meat. As well as creating a delicious product, Impossible Foods CEO Patrick O. Brown is seeking to replace fully the unsustainable meat industry instead of just getting rid of it, because, “[moments when eating meat products] are special, and we never want them to end,” according to Impossible Foods’ mission statement on their website. So far the burger is their only product, and it is exclusively available restaurants. As well as their many locations in cities around the globe, they boast over 100 locations just in Manhattan, and they can be purchased as near to City & Country School as Bareburger, which is just around the corner.

But why is the Impossible Burger unique? One can find numerous kinds of veggie burgers by walking into almost any grocery store. The ingredient that differentiates the Impossible Burger from its competitors is a protein called soy leghemoglobin, which Impossible Foods turns into heme using fermentation. Heme has a high iron count and is found in the blood of animals. Heme is what allows oxygen to be transported throughout organisms’ bodies through their blood. It is also what gives meat its delicious flavor and the Impossible Burger uses it to mimic the familiar taste of beef, as well as the pink color and juices of bloody meat. So far it is pretty much unmatched in terms of its similarity to real meat, making it a worldwide hit.

While this burger does seem to be targeted mainly towards vegetarians or vegans, this may not necessarily be true. Megan Holland, XsMe teacher, tried the Impossible Burger at a restaurant in the village about a month ago after hearing a lot about it. Megan is a pescatarian and was thrown off by how realistic the burger actually tasted, saying, “I felt like it looking and tasting like meat was a turnoff for me.” Megan prefers veggie burgers that highlight the actual ingredients in them because she “[prefers] being able to tell what is in [her] food.” Because of Megan’s feelings towards the burger, she believes that the Impossible Burger might be more geared towards meat eaters instead of vegetarians. This is a very accurate analysis, as enticing meat eaters seems more conducive to an all-vegetarian future than pleasing current vegetarian people. Also, broadening one’s audience when selling a product is a surefire way to make more money. Getting more money is presumably one of Impossible Foods’ goal, considering the United States of America uses a capitalist system. Overall, Megan does not think she would order or buy the Impossible Burger again, and will instead stick to less meat-like options.

Part Two: An “Impossible” Dilemma

In August of 2017, Patrick Brown acknowledged Impossible Foods’ use of animals in a statement titled, “The Agonizing Dilemma of Animal Testing.” This message to the community, published on Impossible Foods’ website, was not in response to any complaints or controversy; it was simply addressing animal testing before the issue arose. Although Mr. Brown claims that he “personally [abhors] the exploitation of animals not only in the food system but in testing and research,” he also admits that the Impossible Foods company has performed animal testing before, specifically by feeding heme, the key ingredient to the Impossible Burger, to rats.

The goal of the testing was to convince the FDA that heme is safe to eat, which would give it the GRAS label. GRAS stands for “generally recognized as safe” and Brown claims that it a standard within the food industry for companies to show that an ingredient complies with FDA labels. However, Brown also states that Impossible Foods “believed that there was sufficient compelling scientific evidence for the safety of our heme protein,” meaning no rats should have been necessary to prove that heme is safe. Because the tests were not to prove that heme is safe, it is fair to say that Impossible Foods’ intentions were economic; customers will feel more inclined to purchase a product that has the FDA “seal of approval.” The statement largely stresses that they only did what was necessary. Heme did not receive the GRAS designation on these tests because Impossible Foods withdrew their application after the FDA presented them with further questions. However, this was not Impossible Foods giving up, it was setting themselves up to try again in hopes that their product could be seen as reliable. Impossible Foods have continued animal testing to this date, even after criticism from the vegan community and animal rights advocates.

Part Three: Bloody Backlash

It was not until April of 2018 that Impossible Foods released more information on their numerous experiments with rats. Rachel Fraser, Director of Research at Impossible Foods, was the lead author on a research paper for the Journal of Toxicology titled “Safety Evaluation of Soy Leghemoglobin Protein Preparation Derived From Pichia pastoris, Intended for Use as a Flavor Catalyst in Plant-Based Meat.” This paper, which can be publicly accessed, accounts in detail all of Impossible Foods’ rat tests. Rats were given dosages of heme in varying amounts, more than humans would ever eat. There were three separate experiments with the rats, varying in the span of time that the rats were inspected for any mutations or side-effects. Eventually, the rats were euthanized and their body parts were inspected in order to conclude whether heme had any negative effects. Whether one believes it is unethical for animals to be experimented on at all, killing the animals went far beyond just exploitation for many people. PETA, or the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, were some of these people.

PETA itself has faced its fair share of controversy, but their response to Impossible Foods’ animal testing was backed up with evidence and presents another side to this thought-provoking debate of ethics. In a video and brief article, PETA brought attention to some things that the average viewer may not find at the surface level. They also delved into why they refuse to support the Impossible Burger, which could appear surprising considering PETA is a major advocate for veganism.

PETA’s response exposes many aspects of the animal testing that took place such as the killing of 188 rats. For instance, back in 2014, before the preliminary experiments took place, Impossible Foods declined to get advice from scientists about which labs treated animals most humanely. When PETA scientists contacted them, they “were met by radio silence.” This happened once again after Mr. Brown released his stance on animal testing, and the company continued with their tests. PETA also mentions that none of this testing may have even been needed, as it is not required for the FDA to actually test an ingredient. On the same note, just because it is an industry standard to test ingredients on animals, that does not make it necessary or justify it. In a fairly succinct statement, PETA explained why they believe Impossible Foods was irresponsible and immoral in their actions.

Impossible Foods is still more popular and influential than ever, as visible in the Google Trends graph above. The obvious spike of interest from early January occured when the Impossible Burger 2.0 was revealed at CES 2019, or Consumer Electronics Show, which annually displays technologically innovative companies. The 2.0 is supposed to be even closer to “the real thing,” and it even won three awards at CES, including “Best of the Best.” If that does not speak for itself, people have said, “This tasted exactly like beef,” and “It hit all the same pleasure centers in my body as when I eat a well-made burger at a restaurant.” A food reviewer even went as far to say that “the well-seasoned not-beef exploded with umami, and even more importantly, the texture was so close to beef that if I hadn’t known what I was eating, I would have happily assumed it was a cow.”

However, this mind-blowing success may have blinded consumers to the problems surrounding Impossible Foods. Although Impossible Foods’ mission states that they hope for a future where “we never have to use meat again,” they may still be in the wrong. While Brown seems to think that the two options are 188 rats being killed or millions of cows being killed, PETA disagrees. While the first option is undoubtedly better, PETA says the Impossible burger did not need to use heme. Even if they were to use it, which makes sense, it is possible to sell a product without animal testing. Of course, PETA is not mentioning that Impossible Foods was also trying to make their brand, and ultimately the use of heme, trustworthy.

On the other hand, while heme is not necessary, the ability to mimic the texture, flavor, and sensory experience of meat will be necessary if this fake beef is to fully replace real beef. Even if Impossible dropped the heme and managed to be successful, it would remove what makes them unique and what has made them so popular to meat eaters. It has been an incredible feat of science for something so close to actual meat to have been made, and without the FDA declaring heme safe, consumers may not have been interested in buying products that contain it. One could argue that the ends will justify the means both ethically and environmentally, meaning that this sacrifice will benefit science, our understanding of heme, and the state of Earth. According to their website, a single burger saves 75 sq feet of land, ½ a tub of water, and 18 miles of emissions in a car. So is 188 rats really that much?

Both sides of the argument are compelling, and Megan Holland says that she is “of two minds” when it comes to this issue. While it does make her uncomfortable to know exactly what had been done to create the Impossible Burger, she can understand the rationale behind it. Megan is using her knowledge of what happens in the food industry to move forward and not to go back. Realizing that one does not know everything that goes into one’s food can be a bit frightening but should be used as an incentive to learn more about food production. Even if one makes an effort to avoid beauty and cleaning products that test on animals, as Megan does, it can be tough to fully understand what is in people’s food. Regardless, one should try to be mindful of all products that are regularly consumed on a day to day basis, from food to medicine to shampoo.

In either case, this controversy has not slowed the takeover of the unstoppable Impossible Burger. Even more new things are being announced besides the 2.0’s debut at CES. The 2.0 will be rolling over to the restaurants where its predecessors were sold throughout this month. A major change being made is that the 2.0 will not be exclusively sold in restaurants, and will come to grocery shelves at some point in 2019. Impossible Foods is even thinking beyond the burger, saying that steak might be next. Can anything stop the Impossible Burger?

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