In a couple decades, veganism might be a rational economic choice for Americans, rather than an ideological stance. Animal agriculture is inefficient, unsustainable, and damages the environment. Recent research suggests that forgoing beef may do more to reduce our carbon footprint than giving up driving. But the burden is on consumers to pay extra for vegan products, or to give up foods which have cultural significance to them. If moral veganism cannot convince people to change their behavior, budget veganism might.
A number of convincing meat substitutes are now poised to compete with ground beef. Impossible Foods is on a mission to replace beef in American diets with a product made from potatoes, soy, and wheat. Their Impossible Burger first appeared in renowned restaurants, such as Momofuku Nishi in New York City. Chef David Chang gave the product a strong endorsement by serving it in his flagship location. Though the item is no longer on the menu, he remarked that the Impossible Foods team had discovered “how to re-engineer what makes beef taste like beef.”
Fake meat has been framed the same way many American issues are–a silicon-valley future against an amber-waves-of-grain past. If the Impossible Burger catches on, it will disrupt the American cattle industry and encourage sustainable consumption. Impossible Foods was able to isolate the chemical responsible for the “meaty” flavor, without using any animals. Heme, derived from leghemoglobin found in the roots of soybeans, is the ingredient that makes the difference. In mammals, hemoglobin carries oxygen through muscles and gives meat its rich, bloody flavor. The successful simulation of this chemical sets the Impossible Burger apart from other vegetable-based competitors, and makes it appealing to restaurateurs looking to add novelty to their menus.
Founder and biochemist Pat Brown wrote an article for Medium to complement the Impossible Burger’s debut into more casual eateries, such as White Castle. Heme is perfectly safe for human consumption, he assures us. Impossible Foods ran experiments to bolster public confidence, feeding rats a hundred times the amount of leghemoglobin a human being would consume for a month. The results are in: heme makes food taste like meat, but it doesn’t make us sick.
High-end restaurants introduced the Impossible Burger to a select few, but White Castle is the first establishment to bring fake meat to the mainstream. It’s a fitting mission for the fast-food chain, which pioneered the mass-production of burgers and convinced Americans that ground beef wasn’t a dangerous food. Ground beef carried a cleanliness stigma in the early 20th century, and was associated with the worst health risks of the meat packing industry. Burgers were a street food, sold out of carts or at stands at the world’s fair. Newspapers ran horror stories about butchers–often German immigrants–mixing horses, cats, and dogs in with their products.
When the first White Castle opened in 1921, its owners also had to convince consumers that its products were safe. Public opinion was becoming an increasingly powerful economic force, especially with foods that pushed the boundaries of acceptability. Hamburgers were a hard sell. To separate them from their dingy origins, the founders of White Castle embraced a sleek, modern aesthetic. The restaurants were finished inside with stainless steel and white porcelain. Every burger was identical, a product of the “White Castle System” assembly line. Whatever chain one went to, the burger would taste the same. The Americanized hamburger stepped into the light of day, and became an icon of mass production and popular culture.
While the original burger had to be polished and sterilized, the Impossible Burger has to do the opposite and shed its image of elite exclusivity. Studies have shown the ingredients are safe, and the health-food critics are largely convinced. Now, the task remains to make the burgers competitive with actual ground beef. Cost is one factor. For restaurants, at least, the burgers are worth it. Interest in the novelty of fake meat drives sales and encourages publicity.
Impossible Foods has not made their wholesale prices public. Founder Pat Brown said it would have been “insane” for Impossible Foods to go directly to grocery stores with their product. Competition with the American beef industry would be untenable at retail prices, and restaurants were the most viable option. In 2018, the company raised $389 million in investments from Chinese and Singaporean funders. Their newest factory produces 2.5 million pounds of Impossible Burger a month in Oakland, where heme and proteins manufactured at other facilities are mixed into an emulsion and frozen into patties.
The other factor at play is cultural perception. Fake meat might be easy to sell to people willing to pay extra to save the environment, or who are interested in the novelty of it, but there’s a big gap between Momofuku and the meat aisle. Impossible Foods commissioned a series of YouTube videos featuring members of the Wu Tang Clan eating White Castle’s Impossible Sliders in space. The mini-burgers cost $1.99, and are a much more palatable and accessible option for the average consumer. Over the next couple of years, Impossible Foods will have to shed the high-minded, high-tech image that helped it raise early funding and publicity.
This is the development that concerns the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA). Just like the first White Castle stores, Impossible Foods is working to change the image of a product which consumers come to with strong preconceptions. If the company is successful, a huge sector of America’s agricultural economy may be undercut by imitation meat. In 2018, the Missouri chapter of the NCBA supported a law which would prohibit fake-meat products from using the word “meat” in their packaging. The ACLU and the Good Food Institute, which represents producers of meat substitutes, challenged the constitutionality of the law in Missouri’s Supreme Court.
The NCBA’s federal policy book suggests that distributors of non-beef products should be prohibited from using “pictures or pictorial facsimiles” of cattle. Terms associated with cattle by the consumer, such as “beef” or “steak”, are also off limits. This dichotomy is a dangerous and unproductive way to approach change. By passing laws which limit how products can be described, the cattle industry inhibits its competition at the expense of the consumer. To move forward, both sides will have to abandon the moral high grounds they have retreated to.
The NCBA must seriously consider the possibility that imitation products or lab-grown meat may be outselling ground beef in grocery stores within the next couple of decades. As the Impossible Burger enters the mainstream, traditional ranchers need to look to the higher-end of their market and scale back production, focusing on quality rather than quantity. Even if it’s possible to, one day, 3D print a steak that is indistinguishable from the real thing, there are cultural factors which will outlast the rush of interest at a novelty. People pay more for wild-caught salmon than farm-raised, and shell out extra cash for free-range eggs. The cattle industry doesn’t have to die on a hill of cheap ground beef; the Impossible Burger will not spell the end of the cow–only its rebranding.