US agency deems Impossible Burger’s key GMO ingredient safe

By Mark Lynas

July 24, 2018

The “clean meat” revolution took a major step forward yesterday as the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cleared the Impossible Burger’s key ingredient as safe.

Although the Impossible Burger is already available in thousands of burger outlets across the US and Hong Kong, the earlier failure to obtain a “no further questions” assessment from the FDA allowed some activist groups to cast a shadow over the novel meat-replacement product, which uses a genetically engineered ingredient.

“Getting a no-questions letter goes above and beyond our strict compliance to all federal food-safety regulations,” said Impossible Foods CEO and Founder Dr. Patrick Brown, who is also professor emeritus of biochemistry at Stanford University. “We have prioritized safety and transparency from day one, and they will always be core elements of our company culture.”

In contention is “heme,” the protein found in real meat that contains iron and leads to the sizzle and flavor that meat-lovers crave. Heme in the Impossible Burger is made from genetically engineered yeast, and although it is already found in numerous plants and animals some campaigners warned it might not be safe.

For example, Jim Thomas of the technology watchdog ETC Group called last year for the Impossible Burger to be withdrawn. “Impossible Foods should pull the burgers from the market unless and until safety can be established by the FDA and apologize to those whose safety it may have risked,” he said.

The environmental group Friends of the Earth likewise raised concerns. “Under no circumstances should any food company ignore FDA safety warnings and put consumers’ health at risk,” said Dana Perls, the group’s senior food and technology campaigner in an August 2017 press release.

Yesterday, the FDA sought to put those safety concerns to rest.

“We have no questions at this time regarding Impossible Foods’ conclusion that soy leghemoglobin preparation is GRAS [generally recognized as safe] under its intended conditions of use to optimize flavor in ground beef analogue products intended to be cooked,” the FDA stated in its letter.

It’s unclear whether critics will accept the safety ruling they demanded, since their primary objection is to genetic engineering. Still, the agency’s designation should serve to align the interests of environmental groups and the manufacturers of meat alternatives, given the substantial environmental benefits offered by plant-based meat substitutes over the real thing.

The Impossible Burger uses about 75 percent less water, generates about 87 percent less greenhouse gases and requires around 95 percent less land than conventional ground beef from cows, according to its manufacturer. Numerous scientific studies have found that beef, particularly pasture-fed beef, is the most environmentally destructive meat available.

The Silicon Valley start-up Impossible Foods launched its burger in 2016, attracting big-name investors such as Google Ventures, Bill Gates and Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-Shing with its mission “to drastically reduce humanity’s destructive impact on the global environment by completely replacing the use of animals as a food production technology.” (Full disclosure: The Alliance for Science is largely funded from a grant awarded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.)

As Brown wrote on Medium earlier this year: “The global demand for meat, fish and dairy foods is a primary driver of the ongoing meltdown in diverse wildlife populations and ecosystems on land and in oceans, rivers and lakes. Unless we act quickly to reduce or eliminate the use of animals as technology in the food system, we are racing toward ecological disaster.”

Brown acknowledged that “we’re not going to solve this problem by pleading with consumers to eat beans and tofu instead of meat and fish.” Indeed, “even many of the world’s most ardent environmentalists, acutely aware of the destructive impact of their diet, continue to eat animals every day.”

He wrote that “by understanding and optimizing the molecular mechanisms that underlie the deliciousness of meat, we will be able to transform natural ingredients from plants into meat that outperforms the best beef from a cow — not just in sustainability, cost and nutritional value, but in flavor, texture, craveability and even ‘meatiness.'”

“We would have been kicking ourself in the foot if we hadn’t already done the research and proven that this was safe,” Brown said regarding the FDA’s no questions letter. “But it’s great news.”