Impossible Foods and the Plant-Based Burger for Meat Lovers

I read one article of “The Economist” in March about start-up companies from Silicon Valley, California, responsible to make sustainable versions of meat and dairy products from plants. Impossible Foods was one of those companies named in the article. I visited this company in the end of April at Redwood City, close to San Francisco, California. This is the summary of my meeting with Pat Brown, founder and CEO of company, performed in Avocado meeting room.

Patrick Brown in Impossible Foods’ laboratory [Source: Wall Street Journal]

Patrick Brown in Impossible Foods’ laboratory [Source: Wall Street Journal]

Dr. Brown’s previous professional area was biomedicine – mechanisms of biological regulation, diagnosis and early detection of human diseases, microbial ecology of the human body, new technology, experimental and analytical methods for biomedical research. According to his own words, he had the “best job of the world”. However he wanted to do something with positive impact much greater for humanity. So he decided to make products 100% plant-based to replace animal-based products, like meat and cheese. Pat Brown said to ”The Economist”:

“Animal farming is absurdly destructive and completely unsustainable. Yet the demand for meat and dairy products is going up.”

He repeated to me that United Nations’ data which livestock uses around 30% of the world’s ice-free land and produces 14.5% of all greenhouse gases emissions. Therefore it would be necessary to develop plant-based alternatives similar to animal-based ones, avoiding greater impact in the planet due to the consumption increase of meat and dairy products.

In the first couple years of Impossible Foods’ activities, no products were formulated. In the other hand, many molecules were extracted from plants and analyzed. In the sequence, the researchers started to study product formulation and methods to obtain the ingredients for the products. All ingredients selected must be economically viable and technically scalable.

Pat told me that Impossible Foods has already developed cheeses exclusively with vegetable ingredients and these cheeses were approved by experts, but his first entrepreneurship will be a hamburger. This first product to be launched will resemble taste, flavor, fibrous structure, bite and juicy mouthfeel of authentic meat hamburger. The price must also be competitive with conventional product. The choice is obvious, besides already commented problems of deforestation and global warming, the beef conversion efficiency is very poor – 1 kg of live animal weight typically requires 10 kg of feed. Moreover the Americans are heavy consumers of hamburgers. I watched in a presentation that each American consumes an average of three burgers a week.

Plant-Based Burger [Source: Impossible Foods’ website]

Plant-Based Burger [Source: Impossible Foods’ website]

I commented with Pat that the vast majority of vegetarians do not need this kind of product. He agreed and confirmed that the target consumers of this product are the meat lovers who want to reduce meat consumption without losing their pleasure. If there is an alternative as good as meat, with the same or lower price, why anyone would continue to consume meat with all issues like mistreatment of animals and environmental damage? At this time, there would be the changing to the plant products and livestock business would go into decline.

On this point, I counter argued that the dairy industry is strongly linked to the meat industry. Each dairy cow is pregnant annually. If the new calf is a male, it shall killed before puberty and be turned into cuts of meat. If it is a female, it will become a new dairy cow after two or three years. If everything goes well in the next six years, the cow will not die during one of pregnancies or births, or be sacrificed due to mastitis or other diseases. As a reward for generation of five or six healthy pups and production between 20 and 25 tons of milk, the cow will be sent to a slaughterhouse where it will be slaughtered and processed in burgers and industrial meat. If there are no good substitutes for dairy products such as cheese, the price of traditional dairy products may increase and subsidize the price of meat. If this action happens, the profitability of the “vegetable meat” business will be eroded. So the attack on the livestock industry should be carried out by both sides – meat and milk. Taxes on the externalities caused by the livestock industry because of the huge environmental impact it causes are fair and should be considered in the laws in the near future. In this way, the competition can unbalance in favor of vegetable alternatives.

I asked Pat how he evaluates alternatives such as “in vitro” meat. Probably due to the long time working in the biomedical field, he was emphatic. He does not believe in this alternative! He explained that problems with microbiological contamination make the scale-up from laboratory to the industry unviable. An ox has its defense system that prevents microbes destroy whole tissues of its body. In the case of “in vitro” meat, a simple virus can infect a cell, multiply themselves with extraordinary speed and kill all cells, destroying the plant’s production. This process is not scalable.

Nowadays seventy researchers are working to develop Impossible Foods’ products. In 2016, the first plant should start production on a small scale. If everything goes well, then next step will be a much larger plant to reach full commercial production shortly after. Then the cheeses will come…

If you want to read the original article of “The Economist”, where other companies are presented, please click on the link below.

The Economist

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