eat

When it comes to the Im­pos­si­ble Burger, we’re hav­ing the wrong con­ver­sa­tions, ar­gues SARAH ENGSTRAND

#Legend - - CONTENTS / JULY | AUGUST -

When it comes to the Im­pos­si­ble Burger, we ap­pear to be hav­ing the wrong con­ver­sa­tions

THE PRO­DUC­TION AND over-con­sump­tion of mass-pro­duced meat isn't good for any­one. We all know this. It's bad for us: it's linked to the in­creased risks of can­cer, heart dis­ease, di­a­betes and an­tibi­otic re­sis­tance. It's bad for the en­vi­ron­ment: an­i­mal agri­cul­ture pro­duces roughly 15 per cent of green­house gas emis­sions, re­quires 40 per cent of the planet's land sur­face and con­sumes 25 per cent of the world's fresh wa­ter. And it's not ex­actly ideal for the an­i­mals, ei­ther.

When you look at the sit­u­a­tion ob­jec­tively, it seems ab­surd. Why, de­spite all of this, do peo­ple still eat meat at all? Aside from ques­tions of hu­man na­ture, for many, it's sim­ply de­li­cious. Ve­gans have long posed the ques­tion, how­ever: “Does one's taste pref­er­ences have more value than an an­i­mal's right to life?” Look­ing at it ob­jec­tively, the an­swer is no.

En­ter Im­pos­si­ble Foods, which launched its first in­ter­na­tional out­post in Hong Kong ear­lier this year.

The Cal­i­for­nia-based com­pany is on a mis­sion to make the global food sys­tem as sus­tain­able as pos­si­ble by 2035, with goals of re­plac­ing all tra­di­tional meat, fish and dairy prod­ucts with high-tech plant-based ver­sions that look, taste and bleed like the real thing.

Cre­ated with meat lovers in mind, Im­pos­si­ble's first prod­uct has zero choles­terol and no added hor­mones or an­tibi­otics. It's called the Im­pos­si­ble Burger and it's made from wheat pro­tein, co­conut oil, potato pro­tein and some­thing called heme. Ac­cord­ing to the com­pany, the burger is far more ef­fi­cient to cre­ate than a con­ven­tional patty, us­ing just 25 per cent of the wa­ter and five per cent of the land, and emit­ting 13 per cent of the green­house gases com­pared to a beef burger.

But what ac­tu­ally is heme? It's an iron-rich mol­e­cule found in ev­ery plant and an­i­mal on earth. The Im­pos­si­ble team dis­cov­ered that heme gives beef its dis­tinc­tively meaty flavour, which is ba­si­cally a nice way of say­ing that

it tastes like blood. It's the com­pany's not-so-se­cret key to creating a crave­able plant-based meat op­tion that car­ni­vores ac­tu­ally want to eat. Im­pos­si­ble cre­ated a way of man­u­fac­tur­ing an atom-for-atom replica of beef heme by ge­net­i­cally engi­neer­ing and fer­ment­ing yeast; the re­sult is soy leghe­moglobin, a pro­tein nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring in plants.

It sounds per­fect on pa­per, but there's an un­likely com­mu­nity that's not buy­ing it: ve­gans. With the Im­pos­si­ble Burger's in­creased pop­u­lar­ity, now avail­able in more than 1,400 lo­ca­tions in­clud­ing the US fast-food chain White Cas­tle, the burger draws a lot of at­ten­tion. But not all of it is good, as a cur­sory look at the com­pany's Face­book page reveals.

To prove the safety of heme, Im­pos­si­ble vol­un­tar­ily tested on an­i­mals – 80 rats, to be ex­act. The an­i­mals were fed ex­ces­sive quan­ti­ties of the mol­e­cule and their or­gans were then stud­ied for ad­verse ef­fects, of which there were ap­par­ently none. The re­sults of­fi­cially de­clared heme safe for hu­man con­sump­tion, at least as far as the United States Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion (FDA) was con­cerned. Im­pos­si­ble had pre­vi­ously sub­mit­ted ex­ten­sive cru­elty-free re­search that led to the same con­clu­sions, but the FDA wasn't con­vinced.

Im­pos­si­ble's founder and CEO, Pat Brown, de­scribes the de­ci­sion to per­form the an­i­mal test­ing as “ag­o­nis­ing” but ul­ti­mately nec­es­sary. In an open let­ter, Brown states: “With­out the rat test­ing, our mis­sion and the fu­ture of bil­lions of an­i­mals whose fu­ture de­pends on its suc­cess would have been thwarted. We chose the least ob­jec­tion­able of the two choices avail­able to us.” He goes on to say that the study was “rig­or­ously” de­signed to use the least num­ber of rats pos­si­ble and that they were treated as hu­manely as pos­si­ble.

But this sac­ri­fice of the few for the many doesn't cut it for many ve­gans, and they're tak­ing to the brand's so­cial me­dia pages to voice their con­cerns. Scroll through Im­pos­si­ble's Face­book page and you'll see com­ment after com­ment of cri­tiques, rang­ing from the cu­ri­ous

(“I've heard you tested on an­i­mals?”) to the ag­gres­sive (“Boy­cott!”) – one user re­peat­edly pastes the same ex­cerpt from a ve­gan news site over and over again.

The main con­ver­sa­tions around the Im­pos­si­ble Burger con­sis­tently re­volve around the ve­gan com­mu­nity's out­cry at the an­i­mal test­ing and the lack of fully ve­gan op­tions – though the pat­ties are plant-based, they're of­ten cooked in an­i­mal fat or served with dairy. In Hong Kong, the two ini­tial “launch” burg­ers cre­ated by Beef & Lib­erty and Lit­tle Bao both con­tained dairy.

But Im­pos­si­ble was never cre­ated for ve­gans. The com­pany ex­ists to pro­vide a re­al­is­tic al­ter­na­tive for om­ni­vores – an easy, more sus­tain­able meat sub­sti­tute that will sat­isfy meat lovers. And it seems to be work­ing. The cus­tomer re­sponse at Beef & Lib­erty has been “phe­nom­e­nal”, says chef Uwe Opocen­sky, one of the first peo­ple cho­sen to launch the prod­uct in Hong Kong. “Peo­ple have been very cu­ri­ous and open to try­ing it. The Im­pos­si­ble Thai Burger has con­sis­tently been in our top three since launch and in some weeks even out­sold the Ba­con Cheese Burger, which is usu­ally our most pop­u­lar.”

This is a Hong Kong suc­cess story; a plant-based burger out­selling tra­di­tional beef burg­ers in a city with one of the high­est per-capita meat con­sump­tion rates in the world. That's noth­ing short of shock­ing – and the im­pli­ca­tions are as­tound­ing. Th­ese num­bers im­ply more than fleet­ing cu­rios­ity; they hint at the pos­si­bil­ity that maybe, just maybe, a plant-based fu­ture is pos­si­ble for every­one. It of­fers hope that sci­ence and food will be the an­swers to the myr­iad global crises such as star­va­tion, draught and global warm­ing.

In­stead of fo­cus­ing on the neg­a­tives, why can't we rel­ish in th­ese ex­cit­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties and sup­port ini­tia­tives that work to­ward the greater good? Or at the very least, fo­cus on more ex­cit­ing neg­a­tives, like the po­ten­tially dev­as­tat­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties that could arise from a sin­gle cor­po­ra­tion con­trol­ling a ma­jor­ity of the world's food sup­ply. But that's a story for an­other time…

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Chef Uwe Opocen­sky from Beef & Lib­erty is one of the first in Hong Kong to em­brace the Im­pos­si­ble Burger on his menus. The burger is made from wheat pro­tein, co­conut oil, potato pro­tein and heme; mouth-wa­ter­ing whichever way you slice it, and from pro­duc­tion to pack­ag­ing, the Im­pos­si­ble Burger is shak­ing up the culi­nary world

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