Does the Impossible Burger mean the end of meat?

Published Mar 21, 2017


Washington - Patrick Brown founded Impossible Foods with

the goal of supplanting the meat industry. He believes the United States' 230

million omnivores can be made to trade their hamburgers and steaks for a

plant-based equivalent, scienced into being.

That vision may yet be a long way off - even Brown admits

as much. But next week the concept will get an important early test: Impossible

Foods is opening its first large-scale facility in Oakland, California.

The plant, which is slated to begin producing burgers

this summer, is the first concrete sign that Impossible Foods and its flagship

offering are anything more than utopic moonshots. The plant will prove whether

the concept can scale, which has implications for public health and the


It also has consequences for the emerging "clean

meat" industry, of which Impossible Foods is an early (and highly visible)

player. Unlike Boca or Morningstar, which sought to corner the vegetarian

market, these companies aim to appeal to hardcore meat eaters by creating a meaty

plant-based product. Beyond Meat, a vegetarian brand, has dipped a toe in those

mainstream waters with its beet-juice-"bleeding" Beyond Burger. This

week, the start-up Memphis Meats announced that it had successfully created a

lab-grown chicken strip - at a whopping price per pound of $9,000.

But few of these companies have proved that they can

commercialize. With this new facility, a spokesman for Impossible Foods said,

the company's production capacity will increase 250-fold - allowing it to

supply 1,000 restaurants by the end of this year.

"The mission of the company is to make the existing

method for producing meat obsolete," Brown said, several weeks before the

factory's ribbon-cutting. "That means we need to be competitive

everywhere. And soon we will be."

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A former biochemistry professor at Stanford, Brown became

interested in industrial meat production after learning that meat is a major

contributor to climate change: livestock accounts for nearly 15 percent of all

greenhouse gases, according to the United Nations.

Brown became convinced that, given enough time and

resources, science could engineer plant-based "meats" that look and

taste like the original. Since 2011, he has received more than $180 million in

investments from the likes of Bill Gates and Google Ventures to pursue the


His first offering is the Impossible Burger: a patty

composed largely of wheat and potato proteins that - thanks to an

iron-containing molecule called heme - looks, handles and (reportedly!) tastes

quite a lot like ground beef. The burger has caught the eye of several high-end

chefs, including New York's David Chang and San Francisco's Traci Des Jardins,

who have put the burger on their respective menus for roughly $15 apiece.

Bulk sales

But Brown still has to show that he can churn out burgers

en masse - and that red-blooded meat eaters will buy them.

First, Brown and his team will need to optimize their

supply chain and manufacturing process to bring the price of the Impossible

Burger on par with conventional beef.

One early challenge was sourcing. Brown initially

extracted heme from the root nodules of soybeans, but that process, at scale,

costs a fortune and releases a lot of greenhouse gases. Impossible Foods

skirted the issue by engineering yeast that produce heme, which now can be

created in vats.

The product also has to catch on with average and

middle-income Americans. Brown is after the old-school meat eater, who is

motivated largely by price, taste and convenience.

John Coupland, a professor of food science at Penn State

and the president of the Institute of Food Technologists, says this type of

consumer might prove difficult to convince.

"So much is going to play out in psychology, more

even than in chemistry," Coupland said. "Meat is an incredibly

gendered thing to eat. How is that going to play out? Are you picking the light

beer by having this stuff? It's too early to tell if it's really going to take



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