“COVID-19 makes Impossible Foods mission even more urgent”: Interview with Pat Brown

By Fabiola Gálvez

Impossible Foods is the California company behind the famous Impossible Burger, a plant-based burger. When you try it you could mistake it for a beef burger because it is so similar that it not only tastes but also bleeds like real meat. One of the company’s biggest investors is billionaire Bill Gates.

In Europe, we have still not been able to give a bite of it but, in the United States, it is booming, in the midst of the pandemic. Meat shortage in the American country has awakened consumers’ interest in plant-based meat.

An increase in their demand has generated that these types of companies hire more workers and expand their distribution. Impossible Foods is currently available in more than 17,000 restaurants in the United States, Hong Kong, Singapore and Macao, and in 3,000 supermarkets across the American country.

We talked to Pat Brown, founder and CEO of Impossible Foods. He told us about the company beginnings history, the work that was done at all levels that started with the most renowned chefs. And also, we wanted to know his opinion about the scarcity of meat supply in his country. Impossible Foods makes its best effort to reduce the environmental impact of eating meat. If someone exchanges a ground beef package (340gr) for its equivalent of Impossible Foods, it means savings to the environment equal to the greenhouse gas emissions produced by driving a car for 44 kilometers, a reduction in the ecological footprint of 1.1 trees, and a reduction in the water footprint of 0.7 days of personal water use, as the company’s environmental impact calculator indicates.

 

In this pandemic, we are seeing small shocks of scarcity like what is happening in the United States. In some supermarkets, meat is being rationed, and in some fast-food chains, meat products are not available. What do you think about this situation?

One of the most at-risk communities in the COVID-19 pandemic is the livestock industry workforce, long one of the most exploited groups in the US economy due to the low pay, high turnover and dangerous, shoulder-to-shoulder conditions of slaughterhouses.
The sector has become a breeding ground for coronavirus, and as its workforce falls sick and slaughterhouses close, America is facing meat shortages for the first time since World War II.

Impossible Foods’ mission is to replace animals in the global food chain. Eating animals is an environmental disaster, accelerating biodiversity collapse, global warming and the climate crisis. COVID-19 is also waking more people up to the fact that eating animals is a public health disaster.

Our mission and the switch to a plant-based food system is more important than ever.

After the pandemic, do you think the next challenge will be climate change?

These catastrophes are closely related. Humans’ reliance on both wild and farmed animals for food is a public health catastrophe, responsible for three-quarters of infectious diseases and a staggering percentage of viruses and pandemics. COVID-19 is a tragedy of epic proportions, one that none of us could fathom a year ago. COVID-19 makes Impossible Foods’ mission all the more urgent.

HISTORY OF IMPOSSIBLE FOODS

When you were almost 60, you quit your job at Stanford and started this new business adventure. What went through your mind? Why did you create Impossible Foods?

Before founding Impossible Foods, I was a biochemistry professor and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Stanford University School of Medicine. In 2009, I began an 18-month sabbatical during which I considered how I could use my skills and expertise and apply them for solving the most urgent problem our species was facing: climate change. I realized pretty quickly that the world’s largest environmental problem was animal farming.

Almost a trillion pounds of meat from animals is consumed globally every year, according to the UN. About half of the ice-free land on Earth and more than one-quarter of Earth’s freshwater is used to raise livestock and their crops, making animal farming a leading cause of species extinction and global warming. Reducing the use of animals for food will liberate land and water, mitigate climate change and make people healthier.

After raising an initial venture capital round from Khosla Ventures in 2011, I founded Impossible Foods. I brought together a team of experts to figure out how to create plant-based meat, dairy, and fish that would outcompete their animal-based counterparts in every way that was important to consumers. The first product, Impossible Burger, debuted in 2016 at some of America’s top restaurants.

How long did it take you to do research in order to create the Impossible burger?

The company was founded in 2011, and the first product did not come to market until 2016. We are building a technology platform to understand what makes meat (and other animal products) behave and cook like they do, at the molecular level – and how to recreate those same elements in plants. After deciding on Impossible Burger as our first product, our team then worked through countless prototypes, testing each prototype’s sensory performance with both internal and external sensory panels. Impossible Burger made its first public debut at the Sustainable Innovation Forum of the United Nations’ environmental conference COP21 in 2015 and was then launched to consumers on the menu of Chef David Chang’s Momofuku Nishi in July 2016.

Can you tell us about the recipe book “Impossible: The Cookbook: How to save our planet, one delicious meal at a time”, which will be published soon?

Impossible™: The Cookbook highlights the convenience and versatility of Impossible Burger, and it shows how simply switching to plant-based meat can transform the global food system. Home chefs can also log into Impossible Foods’ Impact Calculator to learn exactly how much land, water and emissions they’ve saved by using Impossible Burger instead of ground beef from cows.

Impossible Foods’ first official cookbook dedicates an entire chapter to burgers and focuses on savoury and delicious comfort food. Home chefs of all levels can experiment with recipes such as Churrasco Skewers with Chimichurri, Thai Laab with Fresh Herbs, Turkish-Spiced Sandwiches with Garlic Sauce, Szechuan Mapo Tofu and more. The cookbook features 40 recipes from some of the pioneering chefs and personalities who introduced the product to the world, including:

Traci Des Jardins (Arguello, The Commissary, School Night, Public House; San Francisco)

Tal Ronnen (Crossroads Kitchen, Los Angeles)

Michael Symon (B Spot Burgers, Cleveland)

Chris Cosentino (Cockscomb, San Francisco)

Brad Farmerie (Saxon + Parole, New York City)

May Chow (Little Bao, Hong Kong)

The cookbook also showcases recipes and insights from experts in the culinary and beverage worlds such as Tanya Holland (Brown Sugar Kitchen, Oakland), Kwame Onwuachi (Kith and Kin, Washington D.C.), and Eric Wareheim (Las Jaras Wines, Sebastopol).

For each Impossible™: The Cookbook sold on Amazon in 2020, $3 will be donated to No Kid Hungry. No Kid Hungry is working to ensure that children nationwide get the food they need during school closures and all year long.

What’s the company’s next challenge?

Our company mission is to completely replace animals in the food production system by 2035. We have not yet achieved that mission, and therefore that is our current and singular focus.

One of the components of the Impossible burger has an ingredient derived from a GMO (genetically modified organism), but have you thought about expanding with a product line that fits European Union standards?

We filed paperwork in 2019 with the Parma, Italy-based European Food Safety Authority, the agency of the European Union that provides independent scientific advice regarding the food chain.

Our intention is to sell plant-based meat in every single region of the world. As always, the company will meet or exceed all food-safety regulations in every single region of the world, including Europe.

We do not have additional details at this time.

Which version do you enjoy most: cooking or eating the Impossible Foods?

Definitely eating! I’m not a huge cook, but I love a good Impossible Burger.