Impossible Foods gets heat from environmentalists over safety


By Tara Duggan, San Francisco Chronicle

August 10, 2017


Two entities that seem like they should be on the same page — a coalition of environmental groups and a plant-based food company — are at odds.


And the flash point is a veggie burger.


Impossible Foods in Redwood City is facing scrutiny about the safety of a key ingredient in its trademark Impossible Burger, commonly known as “the veggie burger that bleeds.”


In a letter published Thursday, the company’s CEO and founder, Patrick Brown, lashed out at media coverage that he said misrepresented how food safety regulation works and falsely implied that Impossible Foods was trying to evade U.S. Food and Drug Administration enforcement.


“We did everything as responsibly as we possibly could,” Brown said in an interview. “We went through every practice that is used by anyone to assess the safety of a new protein in the system.”


The ingredient in question is bioengineered soy leghemoglobin, which gives the Impossible Burger its bloody red hue and meat-like flavor. The controversy arose on Tuesday when the New York Times published an article highlighting correspondence between the FDA and Impossible Foods that environmental groups say indicates that the protein had not met the agency’s approval before going to market about a year ago. Brown said the company has followed all safety regulations for its plant-based burger and has been conducting extra voluntary safety testing since 2014.


The dustup demonstrates how environmental advocates and food technology startups can clash even when they share many larger sustainability goals. A Stanford biochemistry professor emeritus, Brown said he founded the company to reduce the environmental impact of the food system. But the company’s use of biotechnology — the soy leghemoglobin is produced through genetic engineering — has brought both positive and negative attention.


“Currently our FDA, EPA and USDA regulations are falling behind the very quickly moving development of new technologies, and one of the ways that our regulatory agencies are falling behind is they are not assessing the process of genetically engineering these ingredients,” said Dana Perls of Friends of the Earth, one of the groups that raised concerns about Impossible Foods’ safety testing.


Unlike drug companies, food companies are not required to seek approval from the FDA when they debut a new product. But Brown said that because its soy leghemoglobin — what the company calls “heme” for short — is unfamiliar to the public and comes from a protein in the root of a soy plant that is generally not eaten, it decided to do extra testing.


“It’s not just (about) safety, but our responsibility to be transparent to consumers about what’s in our product, why it’s in our product and everything we know about it that they might care about,” said Brown, who added that he is an advocate for transparency as the co-founder of Public Library of Science, which makes access to scientific research open-source.


Though soy leghemoglobin is molecularly identical to the heme in meats and vegetables, Brown said, the company tested the protein in the lab to see whether it had any similarities with known allergens. They then sent the results to a panel that included faculty from a food allergy research center at the University of Nebraska, which found the protein safe for humans to eat.


Later, Impossible Foods voluntarily submitted the test results to the FDA in the hope of earning a status called Generally Recognized as Safe, or GRAS. Few traditional food companies make that extra effort, although San Francisco’s Hampton Creek announced this week that a mung-bean protein it plans to use in a scrambled-egg replacement just received GRAS status from the FDA...


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