This giant in the world of meat alternatives has received plenty of criticism recently, but is it justified?
The Impossible Burger, the signature product of Impossible Foods Inc., has come under scrutiny in recent weeks within the vegan community. On the surface, it seems as though the company has goals that fit perfectly within the vegan manifesto; to create and supply alternative plant-based meat products in order to limit the destruction, both environmental and ethical, that is brought about by the animal agriculture industries.
A number of companies share this noble goal but Impossible Foods is perhaps the most well-known among them. This is largely due to the publicity the company achieved due to the unique selling point of their Impossible Burger; the inclusion of haem iron. For those unfamiliar, haem is a molecule found in both animals and plants, but is especially abundant in animals. Impossible Foods credit haem to be the compound which gives meat its signature taste and is thus a hurdle which plant-based alternatives must overcome to truly compete.
Impossible Foods obtains their haem from a protein contained within the roots of soy plants known as soy leghemoglobin. This is where the company slips into the current controversy. According to sources, Impossible tested this ingredient on 188 rats over the course of three separate tests, killing the subjects in the process to guarantee its safety. This was done both voluntarily and unnecessarily by the company, with no testing such as this being legally required in order to create and market their products. PETA advised the company about the lack of requirement for these tests and provided Impossible Foods with recommendations on non-animal testing options prior to these experiments which was subsequently disregarded.
PETA not supporting the Impossible Burger is a big deal for the company. Despite receiving plenty of criticism itself, the organisation has a huge deal of influence over plant-based industries. However, further inspection into the case of the Impossible Burger suggests that much of the controversy is overblown. Animal rights activists have a hard stance on animal testing and rightly so. However, people suggesting that the burger is not vegan due to the testing on one ingredient are perhaps drawing too hard of a line in the sand and not admitting to the true grey nature of the issue.
Take the Beyond Burger for example. This is another hugely popular meat alternative in direct competition with the Impossible product. Beyond Meat suggests on their website that they have “never tested our products or ingredients on animals. Our scientists are focused on identifying existing plant-based ingredients that emulate the properties of meat”. Many hard-line vegans point to this product over the Impossible Burger for this reason but they are turning a blind eye by not looking to closely. One of the compounds responsible for the reddish colour of the Beyond Burger is called annatto — tested on animals. The second most prominent ingredient in the burger patty is Pea Protein Isolate — also tested on animals. So, whilst Beyond Meat is not directly linked to funding testing on animals, the ingredients present within the patties have still been tested. It is virtually impossible to live in the modern world without consuming products which are not tested upon animals.
Another factor in this debate is that Impossible Foods attempted to get what is known as a ‘no questions’ letter from the FDA. This letter states that the FDA has no questions that your product is safe to consume for the general public. Many prominent retailers will refuse to sell a product unless it has received a ‘no questions’ letter from the FDA, hugely limiting the prosperity of the product.
Impossible Foods applied for this letter in 2015, without the use of any animal testing, but were denied. In the entirety of its existence, the FDA has never provided a ‘no questions’ letter without the submission of animal testing research data. And so, Impossible Foods made the decision to do a short run of animal testing in order to ensure their product could reach the greatest audience possible, and luckily these tests were not done in vain as they received their ‘no questions’ letter from the FDA in 2018. Whilst Impossible was under no legal obligation to undertake these tests, doing so puts them in a much better position moving forwards to promote their products.
It is clear from this that Impossible Foods was in a moral quandary with two grey options to pursue; (1) To avoid animal testing and not receive their ‘no questions’ letter, thereby limiting their products prosperity and being less able to compete with traditional meat-based products or (2) to do animal testing and receive their letter, removing a boundary to global distribution of their plant-based product.
Bruce Friedrich, of the Good Food Institute and former PETA Vice President, said on the matter;
“While some might argue that testing is not legally required, the alternative is that companies may be unable to sell their products to some major U.S. retail outlets and internationally, and it could result in the product not being allowed to be sold at all, thwarting the goal of replacing animals in the food system.”
When talking of such grey issues as this, perhaps the easiest means of judging right from wrong is the overall suffering of the animals in question. After all, the main goal of the vegan philosophy is to reduce any and all unnecessary suffering. It seems as though the benefits to the vegan movement that the promotion of the Impossible Burger will bring about and the potential for meat-eaters to have this option present at prominent fast food stores and supermarket chains will vastly overshadow the 188 rats which were unfortunately killed to make it happen. This is not an example of preferential treatment of species, and is instead a case of logical consequentialism. This seems to be the opinion and justification of Impossible Foods CEO and Founder Pat Brown in his open letter to their community titled “The Agonizing Dilemma of Animal Testing”.
The FDA could do with an update to a more ethical system for ingredient testing, but until this is put into action some animal testing will likely be necessary for the replacement of animals in the global food system to be successfully performed. A small amount of suffering in order to save a whole lot more. It is certainly a morally grey area, a real life Trolley Problem, and so I don’t blame any animal activist who wishes to avoid the Impossible Burger due to the nature of their testing.
I would certainly recommend it to any meat-eating friend who might be interested as, and this is perhaps the biggest point in my defence of the Impossible Burger, supporting the product isn’t contributing to additional animal suffering. Unlike a true non-vegan product, purchasing an Impossible Burger will not cause additional animal suffering through the barbarous system of supply-and-demand that the animal agriculture industry entails. Supporting companies which are focusing on a more ethical future of food, especially in the unethical system we live in, is the way that all of us can strive to eliminate unnecessary animal suffering from our lives.
Brown, P. (2017). The Agonizing Dilemma of Animal Testing. Impossible Foods Inc.
Eisan, M. (2018). How GMOs can save civilization (and probably already have). Medium.
Friedrich, B. (2017). Animal Testing & New Proteins: Time for the FDA to move into the 21st Century. The Good Food Institute.
Impossible Foods. (2019). Heme Science.
Impossible Foods. (2019). The Mission.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. (2018). Why It’s Impossible for PETA to Get Behind the Impossible Burger.
This article first appeared on Medium and is republished here with the author’s permission.
Image: Impossible Foods/Instagram