‘Our platform enables us to understand and reverse-engineer all animal products’

Impossible Foods: 'Our goal is to produce a full range of meats and dairy products for every cultural region in the world'

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

Impossible Foods COO David Lee: ‘Our platform enables us to understand and reverse-engineer all animal products’
Impossible Foods COO David Lee: ‘Our platform enables us to understand and reverse-engineer all animal products’
Plant-based burger maker Impossible Foods has raised a jaw-dropping amount of money for a food company (almost $400m in debt and equity), albeit one supported by a lot of IP. So what gives its bosses the confidence they can generate the kind of returns that justify such a large investment?

The investment* is sizeable, acknowledged chief operating officer and chief financial officer David Lee, who has not shared details of the Redwood City, CA-based company’s path to profitability, valuation or revenues.

But so is the addressable market, he told FoodNavigator-USA: “Animal agriculture is a $1.5 trillion global industry based on a technology that has not progressed. We share a belief with our investors that this industry is ripe for disruption and the vast majority of our investment goes to R&D and manufacturing.”

Today, Impossible Foods sells its plant-based burgers in 1,300 restaurants from Hawaii to Maine (in chains from White Castle​ to Umami Burger​) but longer-term, its mission is pretty lofty - to take on the global animal food industry – and that will go well beyond beef, said Lee, who joined the team in 2015.

“Impossible Foods’ platform enables us to understand and reverse-engineer all animal products – meat, dairy, and fish. The goal is to produce a full range of meats and dairy products for every cultural region in the world.”

Dairy is in the Impossible Foods pipeline

Lee would not say whether Impossible Foods’ approach to the dairy category will be plant-based (eg. nut, seed, legume based) or whether it plans to produce dairy proteins via microbial fermentation (along the lines of what Perfect Day ​is doing) given its experience with yeast fermentation to produce the star ingredient in its burgers: heme.

“While dairy is in Impossible Foods' future product offering plans, at this time the R&D team is exploring a number of alternatives across the meat and dairy spectrum,” ​he said. “We do not have more specifics to share at this time.”

Second shift at Oakland plant will double capacity this summer

In the short term, the focus is on scaling the plant-based burger operation, explained Lee, who said the firm’s 67,000-sq ft plant in East Oakland is now producing 500,000 pounds of plant-based meat per month, with a second shift to double capacity set to start this summer.

​We launched production in our first large-scale plant in September and are now fully ramped up with a single shift. Demand from restaurants easily outstrips supply at this stage.”

Retail products are in the pipeline but the current focus is foodservice, he said: “As we increase production by adding additional shifts and eventually adding more factories, we will be able to sell to retail outlets. We have no announcement about when or if it will be chilled vs frozen.”

70% of Impossible Burger fans are meat eaters

So who's eating Impossible Burgers?

Impossible Foods founder Dr Pat Brown has been very vocal about the fact that he is targeting the mass market, not just vegans and vegetarians, said Lee, and the data suggests he is reaching his target audience.

“Late last year, we commissioned a third-party company to conduct a survey on who is ordering the Impossible Burger. The overwhelming majority of people who buy the burger (about 70%) are regular meat eaters."

As for taste and texture, the Impossible Burger has improved dramatically over the past five years, claimed Lee.

 “We pay a third-party organization to regularly conduct taste tests in which meat eaters do a blind and completely unbranded taste test of the Impossible Burger vs a conventional burger from ground-up cows. In the first taste test we did, five years ago, about 6% of people preferred the Impossible Burger. In the latest taste test, about 48% preferred the Impossible Burger -- and we keep improving. Our goal is to consistently outperform conventional ground beef based on taste and nutrition.”

Impossible foods burger

The Impossible Burger​ – which debuted in July 2016 at Momofuku Nishi in New York and has since been introduced at 1,300+ restaurants across the country – is the brainchild of Stanford biochemist and genomics expert Pat Brown, PhD, MD, who has described industrialized meat production as "the most destructive technology on Earth​."

At Impossible Foods, the key components of meat have been identified, characterized and sourced from plants such as soy, wheat and potatoes, and processed using high-moisture extrusion and other techniques in order to meet precise functional, taste and textural criteria.

However, the secret sauce is ‘heme’, a molecule that’s “super abundant​​” in animal muscle and which Brown calls “the molecule that makes meat meat​​.” This, he sources from leghemoglobin, a protein found in nodules attached to the roots of nitrogen-fixing plants such as soy that is similar to myoglobin and hemoglobin (which make blood look red). 

While you could technically extract leghemoglobin from root nodules, it’s not commercially viable to do that at scale, so Impossible Foods is producing it via a genetically engineered yeast – the DNA of which has been retooled to produce leghemoglobin. This feeds on sugar from undisclosed ‘plant materials’ and produces leghemoglobin with a fraction of the environment footprint of field-grown soy. The final product contains no live yeast.   

Impossible Burger ingredients list​​​: Water, Textured Wheat Protein, Coconut Oil, Potato Protein, Natural Flavors, 2% or less of: Leghemoglobin (soy), Yeast Extract, Salt, Soy Protein Isolate, Konjac Gum, Xanthan Gum, Thiamin (Vitamin B1), Zinc, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin B12.

umami-burger

Umami Burger, Impossible Foods’ largest retail partner, has just launched three exclusive Impossible Burgers, said Sam Nazarian, founder and CEO of parent company sbe: “Since our initial launch, we have seen a tremendous response from our fanbase as well as firsttime guests who have come in specifically to try the Impossible Burger... The double-digit growth and success we’ve seen together proves there is a desire for delicious, environmentally-conscious, plantbased options and we’re excited to help lead the movement.”

FDA: We need more information

But what about safety?

The FDA did not assert or imply that the Impossible Burger’s star ingredient - ‘heme’ - was unsafe​ when it responded to the company’s 2014 GRAS (generally recognized as safe) determination in 2015.

But it refused to give the ingredient its blessing in the form of a ‘no objections/questions’ letter which firms can show to customers and consumers as proof that the FDA agrees​ with their GRAS determination.

Impossible Foods David Lee COO
David Lee: ‘The overwhelming majority of people who buy our burgers are meat eaters’

Instead, the agency responded with a series of questions​ ​made public by the New York Times​ in 2017 via freedom of information requests made by environmental groups, and noted that the company needed to provide more information: “The arguments presented, individually and collectively, do not establish the safety of SLH for consumption​, nor do they point to a general recognition of safety.”

As there is no history of widespread consumption of leghemoglobin from the roots of the soybean plant, said the FDA, Impossible Foods based its safety arguments on its structural and functional equivalence to other widely consumed globin proteins, arguing that heme B-containing globin proteins “have been safely consumed throughout human history.”

However, “Conformational similarity or functional similarity among proteins is not an indication of the safety of proteins for consumption​,” claimed the agency, which also had questions about other proteins that might be expressed along with the soy leghemoglobin during the yeast fermentation.

Second GRAS determination includes new invitro and animal studies as well as a literature review

Since that 2015 exchange, after which Impossible Foods withdrew its GRAS notice (GRN 540​), it has taken significant steps to prove its heme is safe, said Lee, who said the company had notified the FDA of a second GRAS determination (GRN 737​) in October 2017, and is awaiting a response.

Impossible Foods submitted more than 1,000 pages of test data to the FDA to get it into the public record precisely because we believe the public wants and deserves transparency and deep insight into their food, not because we have any concern about the safety of our product, in which we have full confidence. We are going above and beyond compliance because it’s the right thing to do.”

While the original GRAS determination was based primarily on a literature review, the updated version includes results from two rat studies, plus various invitro tests including a chromosome aberration test on human lymphocytes (a genotoxicity test in cultured cells to assess whether leghemoglobin might be capable of causing chromosome damage or mutagenicity).

The company also voluntarily submitted its test data via two scientific articles to the peer-reviewed journals International Journal of Toxicology and Molecular Nutrition​, and Food Research​, which accepted them, he said.

‘The Impossible Burger is totally safe to eat’

The take home message, said lee is that the Impossible Burger is "totally safe to eat. The heme in the Impossible Burger is identical to the heme humans have been consuming for hundreds of thousands of years in meat and other foods.  It’s identical to the heme that carries oxygen in your blood and that’s at the heart of the system that generates the energy that keeps you alive.”

The other proteins expressed in the yeast were tested along with soy leghemoglobin

Asked about the safety of other proteins expressed in the yeast during the fermentation, he said: “Our leghemoglobin is expressed in yeast, in our case, Pichia pastoris; the additional proteins are yeast proteins. Pichia pastoris is a non-toxic, non-pathogenic yeast used in the food, pharmaceutical and animal feed industries.

“We did our allergenicity testing on the most abundant proteins present within our soy leghemoglobin ingredient. Our toxicity testing used the entire soy leghemoglobin ingredient, including all proteins. All results have come back as safe, non-allergenic and with no adverse effects.”

*According to Crunchbase​, Impossible Foods has raised almost $400m to date from a combination of debt and equity, with backers including Singapore-based investment company Temasek, Sailing Capital, Open Philanthropy Project, Bill Gates, Khosla Ventures, Horizon Ventures, Google Ventures, UBS, and Viking Global Investors.

Soy-leghemoglobin-Impossible-Foods
Picture: Soy plant roots (Impossible Foods)

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