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Impossible Burger: Not All It’s Cooked Up To Be

The Impossible Burger sizzles like a burger, bleeds like a burger and tastes like a burger (well, almost). But other than that, this new burger barn burner has nothing to do with meat

Essentially, it’s a burger knockoff, fashioned from natural and plant-based ingredients that, when blended and manipulated, mimic an actual burger’s meatiness, right down to the blood. The Impossible launched after food manufacturers began tapping into marketing data showing that former meat eaters long for a vegetarian replica that closely resembles the real deal.

That led to development of the Beast Burger, the Superiority Burger and, more recently, the Impossible Burger, which like its predecessors approximates the taste of a beef burger but sports an all-plant ingredient list that includes textured wheat protein, coconut oil, potato protein and soy protein. The Impossible is similar to other burger facsimiles but differs by one key ingredient: leghemoglobin (soy).

Leghem … who? That would be a plant containing “heme” — the ingredient closely related to myoglobin that enables the Impossible Burger to “bleed” and gives it its distinctively decadent touch. Promoters insist this sets it apart. Five years in the making, few would argue that the new burger comes closer to tasting like the bonafide article than its rivals.

But there’s a catch, and it could be big: rather than extracting the leghemoglobin that’s essential to Impossible Burgers directly from soy plants, the company genetically engineers it in yeast cells. Leghemoglobin doesn’t qualify as a genetically modified organism (GMO). It’s not really an organism, period, but a protein manufactured by genetically modified yeast cells.

At first, the ecological benefits of the new burger sparked keen interest among environmentalists, who blame our cow-loving culture as primarily responsible for climate change. This claim even won over hard-core meat eaters, particularly after pushers of the Impossible publicly disowned the controversial marketing tactics used by its predecessor, Monsanto. But Impossible’s own lack of transparency since then has blunted this message and undercut the new burger’s chances of gaining lasting market loyalty.

While the company claims that a third-party team of top researchers pronounced the burger safe and soy leghemoglobin itself “super safe,” it has neglected to test the new ingredient for possible side effects. Nor has it mentioned that soy leghemoglobin has failed to satisfy the FDA, which has concerns about transparency. Instead of completing studies and taking other measures to calm the agency’s concerns and sate public hunger for transparency, it simply rushed the untested burger onto the market, even lashing out at Bloomberg News for criticizing its failure to test the make-believe meat — a tactic straight out of Monsanto’s playbook.

Impossible chief communications officer Rachel Konrad labeled critics of the burger as “anti-science fundamentalists.” She further tried to “set the record straight” by pointing to support from various industry front groups, including the American Council on Science and Health, which is funded by the junk food, tobacco and GMO industries and led by Dr. Gilbert Ross, who spent four years in prison for Medicare fraud.

Also backing the burger is industry apologist Mark Lynas, who has made something of a mini-career in recent years trashing independent scientists for voicing their concerns about the GMO industry and its products. His writings typically link to columns by Ted Nordhaus, who sits on the board of the Genetic Literacy Project’s parent organization, a chemical industry propaganda arm that attacks cancer scientists who are at odds with Monsanto/Bayer’s efforts to conceal the truth behind Roundup weed killer. It is further noteworthy that both Lynas and Nordhaus are environmentalists, not microbiologists.

Another red flag arose on the novel burger after it was revealed that food researchers Joseph Borzelleca, Michael Pariza and Steve Taylor wrote the expert panel report submitted by Impossible Foods to the FDA. The food industry repeatedly relies on this same trio of hired guns to obtain GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status.

Borzelleca alone has served on 41 percent of the 379 panels convened in the past 17 years to review the safety of new food ingredients. According to the Center for Public Integrity, GRAS system critics say Borzelleca’s entrenched role typifies conflicts of interests that riddle the system. “If scientists depend on the food industry for income, they may be less likely to contest the safety of ingredients that companies hope to market,” critics say.

Instead of charting a new course that will breed public trust, Impossible has simply followed in the footsteps of the pesticide and GMO producers who preceded them, who rushed new products to market without transparency or comprehensive reviews, shouting down anyone who raised legitimate questions while ignoring public demands about food safety.

Despite growing concerns and calls for safety tests, Ross, Lynas, Nordhaus & Co. persist in claiming that the Impossible’s “heme” is safe. On the company’s website, Konrad maintains that “An objective, third-party team of the nation’s top food researchers in 2014 vouched for the new burger’s safety. The panel made this conclusion in 2014, well before we began selling the Impossible Burger on the market in 2016.”

But she left out key facts, including the Food and Drug Administration’s ongoing concerns that the studies relied on in Impossible’s GRAS notification were not enough to determine safety. Impossible’s rush to market on the tails of its tainted predecessors is incurring the distrust and wrath of growing numbers of consumers. Despite growing concerns, the Impossible Burger still ranks as a roaring success, even gaining prominence at acclaimed restaurants such as New York’s Momofuku Nishi and Houston’s Underbelly, raking in more than $250 million since debuting.

But reviews at the FDA remain notably lackluster. The agency continues to express reservations about soy leghemoglobin, which, though found in nature on the roots of soybean plants, is produced in a lab, hasn’t previously been consumed by humans and could be an allergen.

With every criticism, the company simply pushes back with claims that after “extensive testing” soy leghemoglobin has passed muster with two panels of food safety and allergy experts and “has a very low potential for allergenicity.”

The FDA and other critics remain skeptical, though. They have recently been joined by Friends of the Earth, which advocates pulling the Impossible Burger from store shelves until the agency can establish whether it is safe.

Food companies do not need FDA approval before they can sell their products. They also are not obligated to report their finding to the agency, adding to concerns about its ability to meaningfully police food safety. Companies can hire consultants to run tests on new ingredients, and they have no obligation to inform the agency of their findings, a process known as self-affirmation.

By Mike Snow. This article appeared in the February 2019 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

Mike Snow has worked as a journalist in Asia, Africa, South America and Washington, D.C., reporting about international and domestic politics, health, travel and agriculture.

Acres U.S.A. magazine is the national journal of sustainable agriculture, standing virtually alone with a real track record — over 45 years of continuous publication. Each issue is packed full of information eco-consultants regularly charge top dollar for. You’ll be kept up-to-date on all of the news that affects agriculture — regulations, discoveries, research updates, organic certification issues, and more.

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