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Why this "bloody" veggie burger may become the Tesla of food

The bleeding veggie burger.
The bleeding veggie burger.
Impossible Foods (via Eater)

It'll be very hard to effectively combat climate change so long as meat consumption keeps soaring.

That’s the conclusion of leading researchers at Oxford, who found earlier this year that emissions from food production will eat up a whopping 50 percent of our carbon budget in a few decades. And it’s the motivation behind Impossible Foods, a company that’s trying to revolutionize meat consumption by creating a plant-based burger that it hopes will taste better than the real thing.

"We had to make something that a meat lover will prefer to what they’re getting today from an animal," says Patrick Brown, the company’s founder and CEO. "We have to clear a very high bar because we have to produce a product that — for a consumer who’s not gonna cut us any breaks — outperforms as a burger what we’re getting today from a cow. If you do that, they’ll switch."

On the latest episode of The Ezra Klein Show, Klein and Brown discuss the origins of Impossible Foods, the key ingredient in a delicious plant-based burger, and how Impossible Foods is aiming to borrow from the Tesla playbook. (You can listen to the episode at the link below or, better yet, subscribe to the show on iTunes.)

Brown, who rose to prominence as a geneticist at Stanford, helped pioneer DNA technology that transformed genetic research. That academic background may seem a surprising fit for the startup world, but it helps explain how Brown has successfully engineered a veggie burger that bleeds.

A transcript of the first half of their conversation, edited for length and clarity, is transcribed below.

Why Impossible Foods is trying to compete with the meat industry on its own terms

A dairy cow standing in a field. Keith Weller/US Department of Agriculture

Ezra Klein: So I had your burger yesterday, and it was life-changing. It felt like you guys had managed to create a burger without quite creating meat. It has a kind of iron taste; it has that meaty umami.

It was an amazing way of decomposing and recomposing a food. How do you do that?

Patrick Brown: We approach the problem completely differently, because the only customer that we care about — given our mission — is someone who loves meat, is not looking for an alternative, and is not gonna compromise on the pleasure of eating meat for some principle or because they’re concerned about the climate impact or something like that.

That’s our target customer. And because they will not compromise on any of the things they value about meat, the challenge for us is much, much harder than just making something a good-faith effort at a burger-like entity that someone doesn’t want to eat.

We had to make something that a meat lover will prefer to what they’re getting today from an animal — and that meant we had to approach it as a very deep scientific problem. We had to understand in great detail what it is about the burger in molecular terms that gives it that very distinctive flavor and aroma and handling properties and cooking properties and texture and juiciness and stuff like that.

And then we had to figure out where to get the ingredients from — sustainable, scalable, affordable plant sources that had this very precise set of properties that would enable us to create a product that would satisfy meat lovers. And that’s just never been done before.

EK: Given how cheap meat it is — and how delicious it is — why would a meat lover switch? Why go after them at all?

PB: We have to clear a very high bar, because we have to produce a product that — for a consumer who’s not gonna cut us any breaks — outperforms as a burger what we’re getting today from a cow. If you do that, they’ll switch.

We have a lot of data from a large kind of consumer test that we did a few months ago, with 600 burger eaters in four cities around the country. We gave them our burger and asked, "If you could choose between this and the burger that you’ve been buying at the same price, which would you choose?" and they choose ours by two to one. ...

What it told us was that people who love meat love it because it’s delicious, affordable, nutritious, familiar, and it’s got some kind of cultural resonance for them. The fact that it’s made from an animal has never been part of the value proposition.

They have never seen ... any meat that they found delicious that wasn’t made from an animal — so it’s not a thought experiment they’ve done. When they actually see it, they can now consider the fact that if it’s made from an animal ... it’s got a lot of negatives associated with it. There are public health issues; there are food safety risks; there’s antibiotics and hormones that go into it; the cholesterol, even the environmental impact, is not going to change their behavior per se, but more and more people are aware of it, and it bothers them.

How Impossible Foods is trying to model itself after Tesla

tesla dealership (Shutterstock)

EK: I’m so fascinated by the way you have structured the business of this, because it seems to me that you have a set of scientific innovations and then a set of business innovations or business strategies. The two things are related but different.

It feels to me that what you’re trying to do in meat is what Tesla did in electric cars. That there had been electric cars before Tesla, but they had sort of been aimed at hippies; they had been aimed at people who maybe already felt bad about the car.

PB: They were already looking for something like that, and they were willing to compromise on performance and affordability and stuff like that, because doing something that had less of a negative impact on the environment was sufficiently important for them.

I think in quite a lot of ways, those are legitimate parallels. If your goal is to address a big global issue — and that was ours and, I assume, Tesla’s — at least a big part of their motivating goals to begin with is that you don’t do that by having a successful niche product. You have to have something that the mainstream consumer will want to buy for all the reasons that drive them to make a particular choice.

It means you have to have a much higher standard of quality, affordability, and so forth, or you’re just wasting your time. That was, I think, Tesla’s thesis, and it was ours for sure.

The thing about starting at a relatively discerning consumer — particularly an uncompromising consumer and a higher price point — is necessary because until we reach a certain scale, we don’t have the economies of scale, and it’s hard for us to be competing with mass-market ground beef. But we can be competitive with organic ground beef or the stuff that you would eat at a premium burger joint or a restaurant.

So for practical reasons, that’s a reasonable choice. Our scale is small, so we can only serve a certain number of consumers. For each consumer we serve, we want to maximize the brand-building value. So I think it just turns out that it’s necessary, but it’s also, I think, a good strategic choice.

EK: What struck me as so interesting about the way you’re framing it to me here — and the way Tesla’s framed things for a long time as a business question — is that both of you deemphasize what one would think of as the core value of the product. Which is to say you’re trying to make a burger in which its plant origins are almost incidental to its appeal.

PB: Yes. I wouldn’t say they’re completely incidental, but if you don’t compete successfully on the things that are the major drivers of the consumers' choices for that category of product, you’re never gonna have a significant impact.

So you have to focus on that first. To some degree, the more you emphasize things that are important to us — the fact that it’s made from plants, it’s got a much lower environmental impact, it’s better for public health, and all that sort of stuff — if you start talking about that too much, then people start to think, "Well, that’s what the story’s all about. That means you’re asking me to compromise on the things that are more important to me, which is deliciousness." And I think it’s the same with electric cars.

If you frame it as "this is much better for the environment" — for me, if I see a product in the grocery store and it says "gluten-free," it’s kind of synonymous with "you’re compromising flavor for something I don’t care that much about." It’s kind of a backhanded way of saying we’re asking you to compromise on the things you care about.

How Impossible Foods thinks of its environmental mission


EK: How did you turn to this problem? When was the first time you thought about the problem of, can a burger be created — can meat be created that is based on plants and is more appealing than animal products?

PB: What I thought of first was that using animals as a food production technology is the biggest threat, by substantial margins, to the global environment today.

And that’s something that is more widely recognized than you’d think by people in the environmental sciences and the climate sciences world, although it gets virtually no airtime.

People recognize it as a problem, but they don’t see it as a solvable problem because they know that people aren’t going to change their diets. They’ll say, "We don’t see a realistic solution to addressing climate change that doesn’t involve a substantial change in kind of dietary patterns."

But it’s kind of unimaginable that that will happen, so it really doesn’t get spoken about a lot. I came on thinking, "I want to solve that problem." Using animals as technology for producing foods is incredibly destructive and inefficient — and it’s an urgent problem, because the environmental impact it has is really pushing us into a really dangerous place.

EK: When you ask the question, "Why does meat taste like meat?" what are the questions that actually resolves into? My intuition is that it ends up not being the real question — that there’s some set of things happening that aren’t just taste, that are coming together to create the impression of meat.

PB: A lot of these compounds — they’re not meat-specific. What that means is that you can actually find the ingredients from other natural sources. You just have to bring them together in the right way, and that is perceived unmistakably as meat.

[Brown's central innovation was using a plant-based molecule called "heme" to recreate something resembling cow blood; he's touted it as the "secret sauce" to the taste of his veggie burgers]

...It’s in every living cell on Earth — it’s not meat-specific by a long shot. But it’s the compound in your blood that carries oxygen, it’s what makes your blood red, it’s what gives it its high iron content, and it’s super abundant in the animal tissues that we call meat. Which is why red meat is red and white meat is pink — because it’s got a lot of heme. Like I said, plants have heme, bacteria have heme, yeast have heme, but meat has insanely high concentrations of heme. ...

If you look at the stuff that’s on the market as meat replacements — I know from people in the industry — their most expensive ingredients are the artificial flavors they buy from a flavor house. But we just use these simple and readily available amino acids and things like that, and we get them for free.