Is firm’s fake meat safe to eat?

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS BEAT - By David Pier­son david.pier­son@latimes.com

The plant-based Im­pos­si­ble Burger seemed like the kind of break­through in food tech­nol­ogy that en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists could get be­hind.

The Sil­i­con Val­ley mak­ers of the fake meat that fa­mously “bleeds” are cham­pi­oning a more sus­tain­able food sys­tem by try­ing to re­duce the de­pen­dence on in­ten­sive an­i­mal farm­ing.

But en­vi­ron­men­tal and con­sumer ad­vo­cacy groups are calling on the com­pany to pull its er­satz burger from the mar­ket un­til it can prove the ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neered in­gre­di­ent that gives the patty its un­canny beef-like qual­ity is safe to eat.

The ac­tivists are bas­ing their stance on doc­u­ments ob­tained from the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion through the Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act that show reg­u­la­tors have yet to deem the spe­cial in­gre­di­ent fit for con­sump­tion (though they did not say it was un­safe).

“The cur­rent ar­gu­ments at hand, in­di­vid­u­ally and col­lec­tively, were not enough to es­tab­lish the safety of SLH for con­sump­tion,” an FDA memo said, re­fer­ring to soy leghe­moglobin, a pro­tein found in soy roots that’s the ba­sis for the burger’s meaty tex­ture and flavor.

“Im­pos­si­ble Foods should pull the burg­ers from the mar­ket un­less and un­til safety can be es­tab­lished by the FDA and apol­o­gize to those whose safety it may have risked,” said Jim Thomas of ETC Group, an ad­vo­cacy group fo­cused on so­cioe­co­nomic and eco­log­i­cal is­sues, which re­quested the FDA doc­u­ments along with Friends of the Earth. Those doc­u­ments were first shared with the New York Times.

Im­pos­si­ble Foods, the maker of the fake meat, says its burger has been labtested and is safe to eat.

The com­pany does not need FDA ap­proval to sell its burger, but it still sought the agency’s safety des­ig­na­tion of “gen­er­ally rec­og­nized as safe.” When the agency re­quested more data to de­ter­mine fac­tors such as whether or not its soy leghe­moglobin was an al­ler­gen, the com­pany re­scinded its re­quest for re­view.

Im­pos­si­ble Foods says its own test­ing shows the in­gre­di­ent is not an al­ler­gen. But reg­u­la­tions don’t re­quire the com­pany to dis­close those tests or even share them with the FDA.

The dis­agree­ment be­tween the com­pany and ac­tivists un­der­scores the com­plex­ity of the de­bate over ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied food and the role fed­eral reg­u­la­tors should play in polic­ing new prod­ucts.

The con­tro­versy comes at a time when more star­tups backed by some of the world’s rich­est in­vestors are pour­ing re­sources into sub­sti­tutes for meat, eggs and milk as a way of tack­ling in­dus­trial farm­ing. But these com­pa­nies aren’t nec­es­sar­ily find­ing sup­port with en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists ea­ger to wean the world off its meat habit.

“The con­cern is that these biotech start-ups and these new com­pa­nies us­ing ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neered ap­pli­ca­tions are rush­ing prod­ucts to mar­ket in­spired by in­vest­ment and not public safety,” said Dana Perls, a se­nior pol­icy an­a­lyst at Friends of the Earth.

Im­pos­si­ble Foods pro­duces soy leghe­moglobin by ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fy­ing yeast and us­ing fer­men­ta­tion. The in­gre­di­ent is key be­cause it car­ries heme, an iron-rich mol­e­cule found in real meat.

“Hu­mans have been eat­ing heme ev­ery day for hun­dreds of thou­sands of years,” Im­pos­si­ble Foods said in a state­ment. “The heme in the Im­pos­si­ble Burger is atom­for-atom iden­ti­cal to the heme found in meat, fish, plants and other foods.”

Im­pos­si­ble Foods, based in Red­wood City, Calif., says it has sold 50,000 pounds of its fake meat al­ready.

The com­pany has raised $257 mil­lion in fund­ing from in­vestors.

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