With the help of notable backers, billions of dollars and cutting-edge food-tech science, Impossible Foods is organizing a burger fest where meat eaters, vegans, vegetarians and environmentalists can sit together and enjoy a plant-based burger that tastes, looks and feels like meat.
Did you notice the empty chair at the table, though? GMO opponents didn’t join the party. In fact, they broke the universal praise around the Impossible Burger and started to raise their voices.
Here’s what happened: in order to comply with the FDA law, Impossible Foods carried out enough research to prove that their burger can be classified as GRAS, or Generally Recognized as Safe.
However, the Bill Gates-backed start-up decided to go the extra mile and asked the FDA to recognize their plant-based meat as safe for human consumption. That was not a mandatory move, but considering it’s a big novelty in the food industry, the FDA’s approval is worth the extra effort. Because of the higher level of recognition, the process is more thorough, so the FDA asked Impossible Foods for more information. That’s quite a common procedure and Impossible is now gathering further evidence in order to provide the answers.
There was nothing truly remarkable in any of that until two non-GMO organizations got hold of the correspondence between the FDA and Impossible Foods regarding the approval, and sent it to the NYT. An article ensued, which gives the strong impression that Impossible Foods is selling burgers that could harm consumers’ health and without the FDA’s approval.
The main point of contention is the most important ingredient of their burger recipe. It’s called leghemoglobin, and it’s the plant-based equivalent of haemoglobin, the protein that gives real meat its typical taste.
Leghemoglobin comes from soy and, as this article on The New Food Economy explains, there are two problems with it. First, the ingredient cannot be found in the seeds, but only in roots. That’s a part that humans never consumed, which effectively makes it a new ingredient.
Second issue: soy roots contain such small quantities of the protein, that it would be impracticable to extract it the old-fashioned way. To get adequate quantities, the start-up had to resort to genetic engineering: they implanted the soy gene that produces the globin into a type of yeast and used it as a leghemoglobin factory. This genetic engineering technique is not new. In fact, it’s widely used in the pharmaceutical industry to produce drugs.
Now, there are two things two say about leghemoglobin. First: although it’s produced with genetically engineered yeast, it’s not a GMO, at least not according to the current US law. Second: Impossible Foods did enough research to prove that leghemoglobin poses no risk for humans. However, those are exactly the aspects where the FDA asked for further testing before granting its full approval, and that’s what caused the uproar.
Impossible Foods claims that the NYT article is misleading and full of mistakes, and asked for several corrections. Eventually, still unhappy with the result, they published their own version.
So what’s going to happen now? Probably not much: Impossible Foods can legally sell their burgers and are currently working with the FDA to get a higher level of recognition. Still, this dispute is important because it shows where food technology, the food law system and social activism come to a clash on three issues.
One is, of course, the eternal dispute on GMOs: is genetic engineering inherently bad?
The other one is about a food system that relies heavily on self-regulation, like in the US. Is it time to radically change it or is it OK to leave it that way?
Third. Impossible Foods is the one making the headlines almost every day, but the world is full of start-ups using technology (including genetic engineering) to produce new and old ingredients in a new way. Innovations can be a gamble, but very often improve people’s lives. Where do we draw the line between taking calculated risks and reaping the benefits?