The silicon valley tech scene loves to deny basic rules of nature: You can’t make something out of nothing. Life requires death. Energy comes from the sun and is recycled here on Earth. Humans need to eat real food.
With investments of over $250 millions of dollars, the fake-meat burger company Impossible Foods just ran into some hot water with the FDA. It turns out their bleeding burger hasn’t been proven safe for human consumption.
The fake burger’s key genetically engineered ingredient, “soy leghemeglobin” (SLH), does not meet the basic FDA GRAS status. SLH, or “heme,” is a bio-engineered protein additive that adds meat-like taste and color. Impossible Foods recognizes that SLH has never been widespread in the human diet in its natural or genetically engineered form. Despite touting the color properties of the engineered “heme,” Impossible Foods did not seek FDA approval as a color additive, which has stricter safety regulations.
In discussion with FDA, Impossible Foods also admitted that up to a quarter of its “heme” ingredient was composed of 46 “unexpected” additional proteins, some of which are unidentified and none of which were assessed for safety in the dossier.
Impossible Foods put the genetically engineered product on the market for public consumption even though the company privately admitted to the FDA that it had not conducted or designed safety tests. The FOIA-produced documents state that the “FDA believes that the arguments presented, individually and collectively, do not establish the safety of SLH for consumption, nor do they point to a general recognition of safety.”
The FDA’s safety designation of “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) allows a manufacturer, like Impossible Foods, to decide for itself, without FDA input, whether or not a product is safe. The self-determination does not require notice to the public or the FDA, and may apply to food chemicals regardless of industry conflicts of interest, or whether the chemicals are new or not widely studied. The outdated GRAS rule was designed before fake, invented foods came on the market.
In a today’s article about Impossible Burger in the New York Times, Tom Neltner, chemical policy director at the Environmental Defense Fund said, “The exemption was meant to cover ingredients that had long been used in the food supply, so that companies didn’t have to come in every time they made a new product. It wasn’t meant to allow companies to simply bypass the F.D.A.”
“The FDA told Impossible Foods that its burger was not going to meet government safety standards, and the company admitted it didn’t know all of its constituents. Yet it sold it anyway to thousands of unwitting consumers. Responsible food companies don’t treat customers this way,” said Jim Thomas of ETC Group. “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.”
“Under no circumstances should any food company ignore FDA safety warnings and put consumers’ health at risk,” Dana Perls, senior food and technology campaigner at Friends of the Earth. “The FDA must be the authority when it comes to determining food safety, and that means overhauling the broken regulatory process so that companies like Impossible Foods cannot self-regulate and rubber stamp their products as safe.”
The case of Impossible Burger raises concerns that surpass this one patty and implicates the extreme genetic engineering field of synthetic biology, particularly the new high-tech investor trend of “vat-itarian” foods (meat, dairy, and other animal proteins grown in a biotech vat instead of from an animal). While Impossible Burger is the poster child for this vat-grown approach, other companies such as Perfect Day (synthetic biology cow milk) and Clara Foods (synthetic biology egg whites) appear also to be racing to market. Just as biofuels were pitched as a “clean tech” fix to climate change a decade ago, the vat-itarian venture capitalists are now attempting to capitalize on animal welfare concerns through “molecular farming.”
While the health and environmental damage caused by large-scale industrial livestock production should not be minimized, there are sustainable alternatives in the food world. Well-managed cattle can graze on land that can’t be used for crops, improving soil quality and can sequester carbon. Consider all of the inputs required to make an Impossible Burger. The mono-cropped soy, all of the fertilizers and pesticides, the fossil fuels for the tractors, transport and energy required to process it, the minerals that need to be mined, the labs, plastic…
Compare that to cattle converting grass (a non-edible food on non-farmable land) to nutrient-dense meat that humans have thrived on. Meat is not the villain. Engineering ourselves away from nature is. And just because grass-fed beef is a small percentage of our supply doesn’t mean it’s not worth investing in. Saying you won’t eat meat because of factory farming is like saying you won’t eat vegetables because of GMOs. Think about the organic industry 20 years ago!
I’ve written more here about the methane, water, and nutrition concerns around meat, and am working on a larger project illustrating why meat is not the problem, industrially raised food is. Impossible Burger and other tech solutions to food WILL NOT SAVE US. Engineering fake food in labs is not a better solution to regenerative agriculture.
Furthermore, it is NOT MORE HUMANE to destroy soil and eliminate natural biodiversity by growing mono-crop soy for fake burgers, which require chemical agriculture. Think of all of the animals this type of farming kills! When you consider all of the microbes, insects, snakes, field mice, rabbits, birds, fish, and other native wildlife that is lost due to industrial farming techniques. Compare that to grazing animals raised in a natural way, restoring grasslands, increasing biodiversity, and improving soil health. Which practice do you feel causes the least harm? And fyi, these fake burgers were tested on animals. How do the animal rights groups feel about that?
I love this quote by Dana Perls in an article criticizing food tech, “Instead of investing in risky new food technologies that are potential problems masquerading as solutions, shouldn’t we be investing in proven, beneficial, regenerative agriculture and transparent, organic food that consumers are actually demanding?”
Our disconnection from nature is at the root of our dilemma. Only when we understand how real food is produced, and that humans are part of nature, (not in control of it) will we fully be able to move forward in a sustainable way.
If you’d like to listen to my conversation with Sara Place comparing Beyond Burger and Real Burgers, be sure to download this podcast. We break down the components of life cycle assessments for cattle, and the impact on water, land use, and methane emissions. It’s one of my most downloaded episodes! Check it out here.