“Impossible Burger Executive Grilled at Sustainable Foods Summit” – (Ecowatch)

Today I have for you, an interesting piece. Normally when one see’s the source Ecowatch in any of my titles, it’s generally an investigation (or deep dive) of sorts. Today’s piece could end up following that trajectory. However, being that I am both ignorant and curious about the subject of lab-grown meat at present, there will also be some exploration on that front.

First, kudos to the author for the clever title to the article. Ingrid Newkirk would be amused.

Before now, I had heard of the phenomenon of lab-grown meat. A few years ago, I know it as an extremely expensive option that had much more progress to make before ever breaking the mainstream. More recently, it’s progressed enough to enable the start of conversations concerning its introduction into the food supply. And now it has come around enough to come on the radar of the anti-GMO brigade. An interesting development, since I didn’t even know the process involved genetic modification in the first place.

Right off the bat, this concerns me. Not the questioning of the safety of something brand new on the market. Healthy skepticism is a good thing, particularly where the free market is concerned. One can easily fill 50 books with examples of the damage that can be wrought when greed and/or pride cloud the judgment of budding or established entrepreneur.

My concern lies more in the worry that the anti-GMO forces are attempting to throw this idea out with the bathwater just on account to its mere basis on genetic modification. It would not be the first time that a good innovation ended up getting the ax on account to irrational fears. Golden rice, anyone?

Another thing I didn’t know was that this research (or at least the most popular variation of it) was being done by a private entity, Impossible Burger. That in itself introduces a bit of problem when it comes to the defense of the product. But more pertinent to this post is where my allegiances lie.
Businesses and private companies come and go.  However, pioneering science does not change. Hence, any defense you see is focused on the research angle, not on who is doing the work.

And so, onto the article.

Impossible Burger Executive Grilled at Sustainable Foods Summit

An executive from a company selling a genetically engineered meat alternative faced tough questions at the Sustainable Foods Summit held in San Francisco at the end of January.

Nick Halla, chief strategy officer of Impossible Foods, gave a presentation about his company’s Impossible Burger as a sustainable solution to the problems of industrial meat production. He claimed their lab-created burger uses about 74 percent less water, generates about 87 percent fewer greenhouse gases and requires around 95 percent less land than conventional ground beef from cows. Halla said the Impossible Burger is seeing rapid acceptance in the marketplace, sold in many restaurants and “better burger” chains.

Personally, I would love to try this meat out for myself. But it is a long way into the future at this point. Even when (if?) it does get approved by the CFIA, it will be a long time before it ever reaches this prairie surrounded backwater near the edge of civilization.

I am curious about the manufacturing and production aspect of this alt-meat. Actually, let’s go with faux-meat (nothing good can ever come from labeling anything alt these days).

I don’t doubt the claim that dozens of percent worth of greenhouse gas emissions can be saved in its manufacturing, compared to traditional meat agriculture. Which is likely one of the least efficient industries humans engage in (only rivaled in inefficiency by the rest of the worldwide food production and distribution system itself).

It is not all rosy, however.

Yeta 2015 life-cycle analysis of potential cultured meat production in the United States painted a less rosy picture if one includes the generation of electricity and heat required to grow the cells in a lab.

“It’s really too soon to say what the environmental impacts of the first cultured meat products will be,” says the lead author of that analysis, Carolyn Mattick, an environmental engineer at Arizona State University. “However, new technologies often come with trade-offs. Take automobiles, for example. They provided huge advantages over horses in the early 1900s, but all of the cars on the road today cumulatively emit a lot of carbon dioxide. That is not to say we should give up our cars or stop researching cultured meat, but rather that we should be prepared to manage the downsides.”


There is always a catch. But in this case, not necessarily.

Given the current mix of electricity production methods in North America and elsewhere, such processes will generate some amount of greenhouse gases (even if a mere fragment of the old way). But that can be mitigated with more research and implementation in the area of constant sustainable energy production. Just as electric vehicles should not be written off simply due to their longer tailpipe on the part of the infrastructure they need to utilize, neither should this new meat source.

Yet Mark Post, the Dutch scientist behind the 2013 cultured hamburger, believes the energy demands could be quite easily reduced. “One of the big energy expenditures is cleaning the tanks with heat, but simple soap might be very, very efficient,” he says.

Better yet.

In some aspects, researchers say, lab-grown meat might be better for us. Because cultured meats would be produced in sterile environments, they would be free of such dangerous bacteria. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that pathogens in conventional meat are the most common sources of fatal food-related infections.

And the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals — to fight disease and help the animals grow faster — has been identified as a source of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that is dangerous to humans. The Food and Drug Administration estimates that the sales of antibiotics for such usage has been going up — by about 23 percent between 2009 and 2014.

Both Memphis Meats and the Dutch team, which is trying to make the production of cultured beef more efficient, said they do not use antibiotics in their products because the sterile lab process does not require them. They also don’t use growth-promoting hormones, which commercial feedlots give to most cattle. According to a European Commission report, their adverse effects in humans may include “developmental, neurobiological, genotoxic and carcinogenic effects.” One of these hormones, estradiol, has been banned in farm animals in Europe since 2003 but is still in use in the United States.

So far so good. Well, but for that last part. That be almost enough to drive me to veganism.


As for lab-grown meat and cancer, the story gets complicated. Last October, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is part of the World Health Organization, published a report that classified red meats as “probably carcinogenic to humans” and processed meats as “carcinogenic to humans.” And the head of the IARC suggested that people “further support public health recommendations to limit intake of meat.” Yet scientists aren’t sure which elements of conventional meat are responsible for its potential carcinogenic effects.

A couple of my past entries are applicable here.

First, are all those things on the probably carcinogenic to humans list, compiled on account to a past Ecowatch piece coving the Monsanto Glyphosate lawsuits.
I predicted (back in 2015) that they wouldn’t get anywhere, and at current it’s still up in the air, with the judge not moved by the evidence of either side (that article being only a week old as of today, March 20th, 2018).
I can’t say that I am surprised. With the number of interests that benefit from muddying of the water on both sides, it’s hard for most people to come to an informed conclusion (let alone a judge, tasked with coming to a just conclusion based on what information he has to work with).

The second entry is my look into acrylamide. I researched this on account to Dave Rubin, oddly enough. This was long before I seen through him for what he was (in a word, a moron).

“It wasn’t possible to disentangle the contribution of multiple components,” says Véronique Bouvard, one of the researchers responsible for the preparation of the WHO report.

There are a few substances that scientists suspect, though. Among them is heme iron, which is common in meat and is found almost exclusively in meat. This form of iron can cause DNA damage and induce formation of N-nitroso compounds, some of which are potent carcinogens.

A study that followed nearly 200,000 post-menopausal women found that the amount of heme iron in their diet was positively associated with an increased risk of breast cancer.

Other studies show connections between heme iron intake and colon cancer.

Raises an eyebrow, indeed. But not just for faux-meat. Good argument for vegetarianism, it would seem.

Now, the flip side.

So here is the good news for lab-grown meat: According to its producers, lab-cultured beef or pork can be made completely free of heme iron. “I think that removing heme iron from meat would make for a colon-safer product,” says Graham Colditz, a cancer researcher at Washington University in St. Louis who has no association with the groups producing lab meat.

Another thing that might be removed from cultured meat, or significantly reduced, is saturated fat, which raises the level of bad cholesterol, increasing risk of stroke or heart disease. Healthier omega-3 fatty acids could take its place. “Stem cells are, in principle, capable of making omega-3 fatty acids. If we can tap into that machinery of the cell, then we could make healthier hamburgers,” says Post, who is working on the fat content of lab-grown beef.

The good.

Unfortunately, potentially carcinogenic compounds found would be harder to get rid of. Among them are nitrites and nitrates, preservatives that are commonly used in processed meats such as ham and bacon.

According to Post, because cultured meats are sterile, they would require much less nitrate to stay safe to eat. On the other hand, nitrites and nitrates are also used to prevent oxidation in products such as hot dogs, so that they don’t lose their appealing color. Lab-grown sausages and hams, Post says, would be “very similar to regular meat” because the compounds would still be needed to preserve the meat’s appearance.

Among other things that would stay in cultured meats are heterocyclic aromatic amines (HAA) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). According to the WHO report, these chemicals can cause DNA damage.

“To be honest, I wouldn’t know how to affect HAA and PAHs in cultured meat,” admits Post, who says he isn’t even sure he would “want to change that.” The reason? These substances are products of the Maillard reaction — the marriage between carbohydrates and amino acids in a slightly moist, hot environment (think grilling or roasting) that help give meat its enticing flavor.

“Maillard reactions are very important,” says Paul Breslin, a nutritional sciences professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “They are the flavor of cooking and give baked cookies, fresh-baked bread and grilled ribs their characteristic flavors, which we obviously love.”

And that’s the catch: If we remove too much fat, the meat will lose juiciness and texture. If we remove heme iron, it won’t be red but yellow — the color of the beef that Post is growing in his lab. If we add too much of the omega-3 fatty acids, the meat may get a fishy flavor.

The bad.

Though, again, not all bad, The main issues seem to stem from the processing of meat products (nitrites and nitrates). Therein seems to be your answer. Processed food is not known to be the best, to begin with (no matter what the origin ingredient), so if that is your concern, stay away from processed foods.

As for HAA and PAH’s, I can see there being varieties of each available down the road. One for the people that are willing to forgo the taste for the health benefit. And the other for those willing to roll the dice in exchange for mouth-watering goodness.

No need to commit either way.

Lab-grown meat may be better for the environment and improve on several health aspects of conventional meat. But for now, at least, it can’t be exactly like regular meat and have no potential health downsides whatsoever.

“We’re not there yet,” acknowledges Uma Valeti, a co-founder and the chief executive officer of Memphis Meats, “but in just a few years, we expect to be selling protein-packed pork, beef and chicken that tastes identical to conventionally raised meat but that is cleaner, safer and all-around better than meat from animals grown on farms.”

At that point we’ll be able to decide if it also tastes good.

Exactly. It is a work in progress.

So long as a gaggle of ideology-driven loudmouths doesn’t get in the way, the march toward sustainable meat protein will continue.

Back to the Ecowatch article.

But Halla’s PowerPoint slides didn’t mention that the Impossible Burger’s key ingredient is a genetically engineered protein called soy leghemoglobin or “heme.” The presentation also didn’t mention that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration told Impossible Foods that the company hadn’t demonstrated the safety of heme after it applied to the FDA seeking GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status. Despite FDA’s concerns, Impossible Foods sold its GMO-derived burger for public consumption anyway.

It should be noted that heme here is a slightly different beast than the heme as described before, in regular meat. Though both involve nitrogen, the heme, in this case, is normally associated with nitrogen feeding bacteria in the root of the soybean plants. Impossible Burger cultures the ingredient for use in its products.

Note the implications.

While it’s alright to question its usage (the FDA did indeed raise concerns about its safety, fearing it could be an allergen), this is only applicable to one proprietary product (Impossible Burger). I assume it is used due to its red color (so that the end product looks more like meat, as opposed to yellowish).

Impossible Foods produces soy leghemoglobin by genetically modifying yeast and using fermentation. The ingredient is key because it carries heme, an iron-rich molecule found in real meat.


The heme reacts (breaks down) in the same way as the heme in real meat, giving you similar results.

I encourage people to give the above article a view because it highlights another problem when it comes to this topic . . . too much private for-profit control. Much like the rest of the biotech world, even though the topic is in its infancy, it’s already looking like it will be dogged by the very issues faced by the rest of the biotech industry.

The company does not need FDA approval to sell its burger, but it still sought the agency’s safety designation of “generally recognized as safe.”

When the agency requested more data to determine factors such as whether or not its soy leghemoglobin was an allergen, the company rescinded its request for review.

Impossible Foods says its own testing shows the ingredient is not an allergen. But regulations don’t require the company to disclose those tests or even share them with the FDA.

The disagreement between the company and activists underscore the complexity of the debate over genetically modified food and the role federal regulators should play in policing new products.

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.

“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,” said Dana Perls, a senior policy analyst at Friends of the Earth.

Seeing any quote from someone affiliated with Friends Of The Earth or any similar organization does raise an eyebrow. But none the less, she has a point. It is very difficult to have proper scientific research happen if those funding it are in expectation of a return. It may not be stated explicitly, but they certainly are not doing it JUST for their health.

If even Golden Rice could not escape its bad reputation after all its patents were donated to a charity, then I fear that faux-meat may run the same risks. Too many monied interests on both sides. And this isn’t even considering a possible 3ed angle of attack, mounted by monied interests in the current status quo meat production industry.

Considering asbestos, fossil fuels, tobacco and other industries that enjoyed prolonged existence due to money spent in all the right places (more, on all the right people!), never underestimate the sting of an industry that knows it’s in its final days.

Now, back to the original article.

Several audience members took Halla to task over Impossible Foods marketing its burger despite FDA concerns, short-term feeding studies, and lack of transparency about the use of the GMO ingredient.

Mark Squire, owner and manager of Good Earth Natural Foods, said he read the FDA documents about Impossible Foods application for GRAS status and was “shocked that a company could come out with a new food additive and not have it subjected to government and long-term scrutiny.”

The main reason I brought this up was to showcase the business interests once again taking their seat at the table. What are the chances that this person would ever sell this meat in their store?

But I can’t overlook the pandering.
It’s still common and accepted that foods (and many consumer products, really) can be given a more green image by just including the word “Natural” somewhere on the packaging. Something that is nothing more than a marketing phrase, being that EVERYTHING is natural. The petroleum derived laptop of which I type this on is a natural product. Nothing is NOT a natural product!

So stop being a sheep and don’t get fleeced by this marketing jargon.

Pamm Larry, director of GMO-free California, asked Halla why his company had conducted such short, 14- and 28-day rat feeding studies of the product.

“Why did you do such short feeding studies when you know the minimum industry standard is 90 days?”

Ken Ross, board member of the ProTerra Foundation and a speaker at the conference, also said that the feeding studies are unacceptable.

“A 28-day feeding study is not impeccable science. You need a two-year feeding study,” he said.

That is indeed a good question.

Lack of Transparency, Product Rushed to Market

Larry said she spoke to several restaurants that serve the Impossible Burger but didn’t know it was GMO. She also asked if Impossible Foods labels their product as GMO. Halla said his company doesn’t label the product as GMO but that information about the use of genetic engineering is on the company’s website.

Squire said Impossible Foods was not being transparent. “I don’t think people selling burgers understand (Impossible Foods’) technology. There is no transparency; there is a huge information gap. Halla said ‘everything is on our website.’ But if you go to their website, there is very little there.”

Also a good line of inquiry. I find myself of 2 minds on this.

I didn’t know that this was a genetically modified product before this. Maybe that should have been apparent to me and others, but whatever. I am not a biologist by career. One could indeed look at this ambiguousness in the product description as hiding something.  Not disclosing pertinent information.

But on the other hand, with the bad press that the whole of the GMO foods debate has in the public sphere thanks to financed disinformation campaigns (Yes, GMO naysayers, it DOES go both ways!), it’s easy to see why any new entrant to the market would want to avoid that term. Genetic modification and GMO are both poisons from a marketing standpoint.

To tell your customers what it is by name is to run the risk of hitting the GMO brick wall. To have them write it off sight unseen out of often irrational fear. However, to play your cards close is to run the risk of being shown to be hiding something. Something that the GMO naysayers are sure to pick up on and exploit.

Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place.

Since it was brought up, let us ourselves, take a look at the Impossible Burger website. See how upfront they are about their product.


So far, I’ve learned that the closest place that I could try one of these faux-meat creations is Fargo, North Dakota. However, nothing exists on the main pages to tell a person that this is indeed a genetically modified product.

As I anticipated, however, this concern is covered on the FAQ page of the site:

Yes. We genetically engineer yeast to make a key ingredient: heme. The process allows us to produce the Impossible Burger at scale with the lowest achievable environmental impact.

We start with the gene for a protein called leghemoglobin, a heme protein that is naturally found in the root nodules of soy plants. Leghemoglobin is similar to myoglobin, the heme protein that is exceptionally abundant in animal muscles, binds oxygen and gives meat its unique flavor and aroma.

We add the soy leghemoglobin gene to a yeast strain, and grow the yeast via fermentation. Then we isolate the leghemoglobin, or heme, from the yeast. We add heme to the Impossible Burger to give it the intense, meaty flavor, aroma and cooking properties of animal meat.

By producing our heme in yeast, we avoid digging up soy plants to harvest the root nodules, which would promote erosion and release carbon stored in the soil. This enables us to produce heme sustainably at high volume and make plant-based meat for millions of people, offsetting the environmental impact of animal agriculture.

Interesting. I’de say that more than makes up for the void of the information elsewhere on the site.

So a drawback to this food is that without genetic modification, it’s ecological footprint rises exponentially. But I am not even sure that should be seen as a drawback. Those that are most likely to bring it up are likely just averse to GMO’s. And given the trajectory that climate change has us on (more and more food insecurity due to land loss and crop failure on a worldwide scale), I don’t know how much longer we will have the luxury of making that argument.

Some can of worms that I just opened up.

One thing I am curious about is if this product contains gluten. Being that it lists wheat, I air to the side of yes. But at the same time, it’s not directly listed, making me unsure. Though the segment for which this question applies to is fairly small, it’s very important to them none the less.

Squire said Impossible Foods was not being transparent. “I don’t think people selling burgers understand (Impossible Foods’) technology. There is no transparency; there is a huge information gap. Halla said ‘everything is on our website.’ But if you go to their website, there is very little there.”

Ross thought that Impossible Foods rushed the Impossible Burger to market due to pressure from investors.

“They call the shots and want to get the product commercialized and into the market and so they aren’t doing a 2-year feeding study and doing superficial short studies instead.”

Ross told Halla that—with its questionable feeding studies and lack of transparency—Impossible Foods is repeating the same deceptions that the biotech industry has done in the past.

“You’re speaking to an audience that has already been down that road,” he said.

Halla seemed surprised by the tough questions.

“He was clearly chastened by the reaction. I don’t think he thought he was coming into a hostile environment,” Ross said.

Amarjit Sahota, president and owner of Ecovia Intelligence, organizer of the Summit, acknowledged that Halla “received a lot of criticism after his seminar.”

“We believe the feedback and criticism Impossible Foods received will make them think twice about making claims in the future and make them more transparent about their ingredients,” Sahota said.

This surprises me a bit, him allegedly not knowing what he was stepping into. But who knows.

Look who is the source of this information.

Editor’s Note: I sent an email to Impossible Foods asking if Nick Halla could tell me his responses to the audience’s questions during the summit. I wanted to get his perspective. My email was answered by Rachel Konrad, Impossible Foods chief communications officer, who did not attend the summit.

In response to my question about Halla’s PowerPoint slides not mentioning Impossible Foods’ use of genetic engineering, Konrad wrote: “Nick talked specifically about the use of engineered yeast during his presentation.” Still, “genetic engineering” was not mentioned in any of his slides.

Regarding the short-term animal feeding study, Konrad wrote: “Our rat-feeding study was comprehensive and statistically valid; a panel of experts reviewed the study and unanimously agreed that soy leghemoglobin is safe.”

When asked about how employees at the burger restaurants don’t know that the Impossible Burger is genetically engineered, Konrad wrote that her company provides training sessions for chefs and kitchen staff: “In these sessions, we explain the ingredients—including how we produce heme through fermentation of a genetically modified yeast.”

Make what you will of that.

In conclusion, I am very curious about the progress of lab-grown or faux-meat in the future. Though many hurdles exist, this breakthrough has the potential to alleviate many of the problems that we will face in the near to distant future.

I am concerned, however, with the direction that we seem to be headed in at current. On one side, monied interests pursuing profits and market share. And on the other, ideological interests fleeing from a perceived nemesis (and some monied interests too. Don’t kid yourself). And just to make things even more interesting, an entire well-financed industry that will be rendered almost entirely redundant by the growth of this new competitor.

Interesting things are in store.

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