An Urban's Rural View

Want Meat With That Burger? Real Meat?

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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As a preface to this post on the new plant-based meat, I should make one thing clear: I love real meat but respect vegetarians' motives. I suspect most vegetarians and vegans once liked the taste of meat as much as I do. They gave it up not because it tasted yucky but over worries about animal welfare, their own health or the impact of livestock-raising on the environment. These are worry-worthy problems even though I don't agree that solving them requires giving up meat.

Another necessary preface is to acknowledge that ranchers, hog raisers, chicken farmers and other producers of real meat justifiably object to the use of the word "meat" in reference to products made from plants rather than animals. I'm just not sure what else to call the stuff without confusing readers. Some journalists use terms like alt-beef and alternative meat, but those word choices won't satisfy livestock people. In their view, it's not meat at all.

A final preface is to distinguish the new stuff I'm talking about from the veggie burgers and other forms of faux meat that have been around for decades. You may or may not like these forms but nobody thinks they taste like meat. They appeal mainly to the vegetarian market. Meat eaters like me might try a veggie burger now and then, but most of the time we will demand the real thing. These older products don't cause livestock raisers much loss of sleep.

The new faux meat is different. Plant-based "burgers" and other meat substitutes made by two leading companies, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, are getting rave reviews. Some people say these products taste like real meat. Not only that, the burgers are said to sizzle and smell like a burger and even bleed on the grill.

These offerings are, as the Wall Street Journal put it, "aimed squarely at carnivores. The goal isn't to placate your vegan cousin at family barbecues." (https://www.wsj.com/…)

And the two companies are making progress. As I wrote in October 2016, Beyond Meat has attracted investment from Tyson Foods and its Beyond Burger is being sold in some Whole Foods stores in the meat case, next to real meat. (https://www.dtnpf.com/…)

Since then, the company has also attracted investment from Bill Gates, Leonardo DiCaprio, the co-founders of Twitter and former McDonald's CEO Don Thompson. (http://beyondmeat.com/…)

White Castle just began selling Impossible Foods' sliders at 140 of its 594 locations, mostly in New York, New Jersey and the Chicago area. (http://www.grubstreet.com/…)

Beyond Meat's website features quotes from media articles emphasizing appeal to real-meat lovers. A Fast Company reviewer said, "I think the Beyond Burger has a solid chance of converting dedicated carnivores." The Chicago Tribune said of the company's Beyond Sausage, "All the flavors are there. The sausage itself not only snaps like sausage and tastes like sausage, but upon close inspection of a cross-section, even looks like sausage, with fatty bits in each bite." (http://beyondmeat.com/…)

So should livestock guys be losing sleep? Actually, the plant-based competitors still face some significant hurdles. The question is whether they can overcome them and if so, when.

Hurdle one is convincing carnivores the rave reviewers are right. Not all the reactions have been raves. Here's a more measured one that's worth citing at length:

"When I cooked my first patty, I threw it on a small skillet without oil. Unlike most vegetarian burgers I've tried, the Beyond Burger sizzled like meat. It didn't smell like beef, but more like a vegetable I couldn't identify. Peas, perhaps?

"About three minutes later, I flipped the patty over, and it was slightly browned.

"After waiting about three more minutes, the burger was done. It generated a lot of liquid on the spatula, although it didn't really look like normal beef burger juices.

"After I added lettuce, tomato, and ketchup, I took a bite. In a blind taste test, it definitely wouldn't fool me as beef, but its texture was shockingly close, and it was even pink in the middle. To make the patty taste more like a normal burger, next time I would use steak seasoning.

"Inside, bits of veggies mimicked the texture of ground beef. Overall, it was tasty and juicy." (http://www.businessinsider.com/…)

Apparently not everyone thinks they taste and smell exactly like real burgers.

Another hurdle is price. The price will come down as these companies ramp up production and marketing and achieve economies of scale. To be competitive, however, it has a long way to drop. At White Castle, for example, the Impossible slider, topped with pickles, onions and smoked cheddar, sells for $1.99. The chain's Original slider goes for 72 cents -- 90 cents with cheese. (https://www.fastfoodmenuprices.com/…)

And then, there's Impossible Foods' GMO problem.

It's a long, involved saga, but you can get the gist of it from two websites. The critics' version is here: (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/…)

Impossible Foods' side is here: (https://www.impossiblefoods.com/…)

Or you can read my four-paragraph summary:

Impossible Foods said the key ingredient in its burger is soy leghemoglobin, or heme, which is closely related to the myoglobin that's abundant in animal muscles. The company said myoglobin is what gives real meat its flavor and heme is what makes the Impossible Burger so "rich and decadent."

Instead of harvesting tons of soybean plants for the soy leghemoglobin in their roots, Impossible genetically engineers what it calls an identical version in yeast. It asked the Food and Drug Administration to declare its products safe, but FDA said it didn't present enough evidence. It put the burger on the market anyway.

That wasn't illegal. Indeed, Impossible could have legally claimed its product safe without asking the FDA's blessing. Companies do this all the time. Nor does the FDA's refusal to bless the product mean it's unsafe.

Impossible noted that scientists have no question about the safety of soy leghemoglobin as it occurs in nature; if there's a question, it's about GMO heme. That will put off the anti-GMO purists. Even potential customers who aren't concerned about genetic engineering may be troubled when a company sells a product that's tried and failed to get the FDA safety declaration.

Ignore the irony of a product made for idealistic reasons running afoul of a different strand of idealism. The question to watch is whether this fracas hurts the Impossible Burger, and how much.

So should livestock raisers lose sleep? Maybe not yet. But there's a lot going on here. At the very least they ought to be paying attention.

Urban Lehner can be reached at urbanize@gmail.com

(ES)

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