Impossible Burger Sees Red Over Story, Says It's Safe To Consume

Impossible Foods, the creator of a trendy vegetarian burger that seems to bleed like real meat, is battling back after environmental groups told the New York Times that a key ingredient — soy leghemoglobin — has not been certified as safe for consumption by the Food and Drug Administration. It has not been deemed “unsafe,” either, but regulatory limbo is not where any brand wants to be.

“A panel of food safety and allergy experts at three universities unanimously reaffirmed last week that soy leghemoglobin, a protein from the roots of soy plants, is generally recognized as safe, or ‘GRAS.’ GRAS means a food is safe to be consumed under U.S. regulations,” the company fired back in a press release yesterday after the article was published.

“This is the second time the expert panel has unanimously found that soy leghemoglobin [“heme”] is safe. In 2014, the food safety and allergy experts at the University of Nebraska, University of Wisconsin and Virginia Commonwealth University found that soy leghemoglobin is GRAS,” it continued.



The Redwood City, Calif.-based company, which is backed by investors including Bill Gates to the tune of $250 million, also called the NYT report “cynical” and “inaccurate,” Whitney Filloon reports for Eater. It cited the finding of the panel of academics as well as “details about a rat feeding study in which rats consumed the equivalent of more than 200 times the amount of heme, in the form of soy leghemoglobin, that the average American consumes daily from ground beef.”

Heme is a protein released when soy leghemoglobin breaks down. 

“Impossible Foods wants the Food and Drug Administration to confirm that the ingredient is safe to eat. But the agency has expressed concern that it has never been consumed by humans and may be an allergen, according to documents obtained under a Freedom of Information request by the ETC Group as well as other environmental and consumer organizations,” the NYT’s Stephanie Strom wrote yesterday, igniting the controversy.

“‘F.D.A. believes the arguments presented, individually and collectively, do not establish the safety of soy leghemoglobin for consumption,’ agency officials wrote in a memo they prepared for a phone conversation with the company on Aug. 3, 2015, ‘nor do they point to a general recognition of safety,’” Strom continues.

“Impossible Foods is finding out what happens when a fast-moving venture capital business runs headlong into the staid world of government regulation,” she says.

According to the company, the Impossible Burger “uses about 75% less water, generates about 87% fewer greenhouse gases and requires around 95% less land than conventional ground beef from cows. It's produced without hormones, antibiotics, cholesterol or artificial flavors.”

Why, then, are environmentalists raising the blood-red flags?

“The controversy comes at a time when more start-ups backed by some of the world’s richest investors are pouring resources into substitutes for meat, eggs and milk as a way of tackling industrial farming. But these companies aren’t necessarily finding support with environmentalists eager to wean the world off its meat habit,” writes David Pierson for the Los Angeles Times.

“The concern is that these biotech start-ups and these new companies using genetically engineered applications are rushing products to market inspired by investment and not public safety,” Dana Perls, a senior policy analyst at Friends of the Earth, tells Pierson.

Impossible Foods founder and CEO Patrick Brown, a medical doctor and Ph.D. who had been a biochemist at Stanford, told the NYT’s David Gelles in January that his goal was to disrupt the multibillion-dollar market for ground beef without killing cows. 

“You can have uncompromisingly delicious meat without using animals,” Brown told Gelles, claiming that “in blind taste tests, some people could not distinguish between the Impossible Burger and a beef patty.”

Gelles reports “the reactions were generally positive,” too, in a tasting the NYT organized. 

The Impossible Burger has, in fact, has reportedly been a sensation in trendy restaurants around the country — 43 of them now, including several chains.

“The veggie burger that bleeds, the Impossible Burger, which made a splash in Houston earlier this year when Underbelly and Hay Merchant added it to the menu (Hopdoddy as well), might be in for some upcoming drama concerning government food regulations,” writes the Houston Press’ food editor Gwendolyn Knapp in covering the story yesterday.

If it proves as safe as the company says it is, the upside of the drama will be the publicity the story has generated.

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