Plant-based burgers are experiencing quite the renaissance right now. The Beyond Burger has been available at Carl’s Jr. for quite some time; the Impossible burger is set to be available at Burger King nationwide; Del Taco now has a Beyond Meat taco; and the Impossible burger is popping up in smaller restaurants all over. Just last week, Beyond Meat went public, with extraordinary results so far, and Impossible Foods is reportedly struggling to keep up with demand.
These are reflective of a surging interest in plant-based burgers. People are trying the Beyond Burger and the Impossible burger and are finding that it scratches their meat itch, and opting for these animal-free options rather than beef patties.
So everyone’s happy, right? Of course not, it’s 2019.
With the rising popularity of the Impossible burger has come reinvigorated scrutiny of the company’s decision to use animal testing. In August 2017, Impossible Foods CEO Patrick Brown addressed the ‘agonizing dilemma’ of being forced to conduct animal testing in an open letter.
In the letter, Brown outlines the reason the animal testing was conducted: the company discovered that heme, an iron-containing molecule, was the key to creating a product that tastes like real meat. They discovered a way to produce heme in large quantities by “using yeast modified with a gene from a plant,” the letter says.
Because the process of creating this heme was novel, they were required to obtain approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Says Brown, “[W]e believed that there was sufficient compelling scientific evidence for the safety of our heme protein (soy leghemoglobin) that no rat testing was required for conclusive proof of its safety.”
Unfortunately, they were wrong. Although a panel of experts in 2014 deemed the ingredient “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS), and voluntarily submitted their data to the FDA, the FDA still “had some questions.”
Although Brown does not go into detail about what these questions were, he implies that animal testing was the only way to address these questions: “The FDA reviewed the data and had some questions. To address them, we conducted additional tests. It is industry standard to perform rat feeding studies to demonstrate that a food ingredient is not toxic and is safe; most companies that submit a GRAS notification to the FDA include tests that use animals as subjects.”
Brown is candid about his struggle with this:
I personally abhor the exploitation of animals not only in the food system but in testing and research. In my 3-decade career in biomedical research, I always avoided using animals in experiments and developed new experimental methods to eliminate the incentive for using them. And I have been a vegetarian for more than 40 years and have totally avoided animal products for the last fourteen years.But we were confronted with an agonizing dilemma: We knew from our research that heme is absolutely essential to the sensory experience meat lovers crave. Replacing animals in the diets of meat lovers would absolutely require heme. So without the rat testing, our mission and the future of billions of animals whose future depends on its success was thwarted. We chose the least objectionable of the two choices available to us.
Brown goes on to explain how the company minimized the harm this testing would inflict, including by using the smallest number of rats possible to produce statistically valid results; using rigorous methods that ensured it would never have to be done again; and selecting the most humane lab they could find.
Nonetheless, as PETA reported, 188 rats were killed following the trial. PETA characterizes the decision to test on rats as “voluntary,” and that Brown “admitted that the test didn’t have to be conducted,” but does not cite any source to support this claim. In a rather tone-deaf diatribe, PETA goes on to list other vegan burgers, like the Beyond Burger, which were not tested on animals.
But as much as vegans enjoy the Impossible burger, it’s not really for us. Many vegans abhor the taste of meat, and the idea of eating something that’s meant to taste like meat evokes disgust. I enjoy the Impossible burger, but I understand that other vegans don’t like the taste.
It’s for meat-eaters, and it makes little sense to disparage the company for following the standard process to produce a product that will save lives.
Let’s think about this for a minute. Let’s take Brown’s word for it that without animal testing, the ingredient would have been less likely to be approved (the alternative seems to be the nonsensical notion that he actually is in favor of animal testing and lied about it, despite being vegan — unless he’s lying about that, too!). Let’s also put cows and rats on equal footing — any harm we cause to a cow is just as wrong as any harm we cause to a rat. Even though this is neuroanatomically unlikely, since a cow is likely to be significantly more sentient than a rat, let’s just go with it.
If 188 rats died to produce the Impossible burger, if the burger saves 188 cows, it’s neutral — neither a net positive nor a net negative. You don’t need me to spell this out for you, but I will anyway: way, way more than 188 cows have been saved because of the Impossible burger. Therefore, the Impossible burger is a net positive — and a rather extraordinary one at that, given its popularity even among meat-eaters.
And it doesn’t even make sense to be opposed to vegans eating the Impossible burger, either. The animal testing was already completed; unless we are to believe that consuming an Impossible burger is to somehow stomp on the grave of those poor rats, there is simply no argument that eating one causes further harm in any way.
On top of that, even if the animal testing was completely unnecessary, it was probably still worth it. Alternative forms of testing other than animal testing would have undoubtedly caused delays in the Impossible burger coming to market; even if this delay was only a single day, since the Impossible burger sells more than 188 burgers in a day, they would still be doing the right thing by opting for animal testing. Think about the number of people consuming an Impossible burger today who would otherwise have have a regular beef burger. That number is certainly higher than 188. If Impossible Foods didn’t conduct animal testing to gain approval, those people would be eating a beef burger today. That’s a far worse scenario.
So yes, the Impossible burger was worth the animal testing. As Brown states at the end of his letter, “choosing the option that advances the greater good is more important to us than ideological purity.”
Now that’s a company I can get behind.
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A cow is more sentient than a rat? Where on earth would you get that idea?
The idea is that sentience roughly corresponds to brain size. Small differences in brain size — such as the variation we might see in humans — is unlikely to predict level of sentience. On the other hand, large differences in brain size — like that between a rat and a cow — almost certainly correspond to differences in level of sentience.
That way of reasoning is speciesism. The thing we should fight as vegans, you know?
Hey there – I’ve written elsewhere about how speciesism isn’t necessarily harmful.
TL;DR, one can value a human life more than the life of a mouse without causing harm to the mouse. But if we believe that this superiority justifies killing a mouse, then it’s a problem. Speciesism isn’t harmful unless and until it’s used to justify causing harm to a sentient creature. Even further, I would argue that we are all valuing our own life more than other animals’, because even a vegan existence contributes to animal suffering — just far less than a vegetarian or omnivore.