Serving up the Impossible: Why this Silicon Valley burger could be bad news for Canada's meat industry
Impossible Foods' plant-based burger looks, feels, cooks, smells, tastes and even bleeds like the real thing and is about to go into mass production.
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As one of the masterminds of the new foodie millennium, David Chang is always ahead of the curve.
So when the man behind Momofuku declared last summer that he had discovered a gastronomical gamechanger, we should have paid more attention.
“I was genuinely blown away,” Chang said of the new addition to the menu at Momofuku Nishi, his New York hub. “It was something I knew I had to get behind.”
He was referring to the Impossible Burger — an entirely plant-based burger that looks, feels, cooks, smells, tastes and even bleeds like the real thing. Less than 12 months on, it appears Chang was onto something.
Impossible Foods, the company behind the innovation that counts Google Ventures and Bill Gates amongst its backers, last week announced plans to take the burger global. The company unveiled a mass production facility close to its Silicon Valley base that will churn out up to 4 million plant patties per month.
The burger hasn’t yet crossed the border, but the company has plans to bring it to Canada next year. Proteins have come along in recent times, but the huge buzz and rave reviews swirling around the Impossible Burger signal this offering is different.
And that could be bad news for a Canadian meat industry fighting to maintain its place in a rapidly changing market.
“There is a rising interest in alternative meats,” Mike von Massow, a professor at the University of Guelph’s Food Institute told Metro. “In some cases it’s relative to animal welfare, sustainability. For some people it’s health. There are a number of reasons that we’re seeing people — particularly with red meat — take a pause.
“That group isn’t huge right now, but it is growing. Will (the Impossible Burger) take half the market in the next 18 months? No, probably not. But is there a significant opportunity for growth? Yes.”
That growth could be all the more significant if the burger’s positive reviews hold up as it hits the mass market. Impossible’s breakthrough in reproducing their own plant-based heme, the molecule that naturally gives blood its colour and burgers their metallic moreishness, has been the key to their success.
“It looks great,” said Sabrina Falone, director of culinary innovation at THP, a Toronto-based creative food agency. “I could definitely see how the texture could be alluring because it looks so similar to that of beef. It has that reddish hue that looks something like a medium rare cook. We all eat with our eyes first and our palates second.”
As millennials and baby boomers embrace an era of unprecedented food choice, Canadians aren’t eating as much meat with their eyes or palates.
Last year, beef saw its biggest annual drop in over 30 years — eight per cent according to the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association. Statistics Canada’s latest figures on the nation’s carnivorous tendencies painted an equally stark picture.
While Canadians consumed 32.4kg of beef per capita annually as recently as 2003, that number plummeted to 24.4kg by 2015. In the same time, pork dropped from 25.1kg to 22.6kg, but chicken bucked that trend increasing from 29.8kg to 31.8kg.
Still, the industry insists it is not concerned at the potential of the Impossible Burger to further eat into sales.
“I don’t think the volumes are very big yet … it will be interesting to see how much pickup they get,” Ron Davidson, senior vice-president of the Canadian Meat Council, told Metro. “You called it meat. I don’t know if it even qualifies for that, frankly. It’s something anyway.”
Davidson was bullish about the prospects of an industry that employs 66,300 Canadians. Meat exports to the Asian market remain strong. In short, their position is they have enough on their plate without worrying about the Impossible Burger.
“This is initially a novelty product and some people may eat it. But it goes against the trends, the move towards natural product; not wanting lab or industrial products,” added Davidson. “We’re looking at it, but it’s not something that today concerns us.”
But as Canada’s foodie hubs and the country at large have proven, trends can take off very quickly here — and stick.
“There are so many demographics that would gravitate towards it in our food culture,” said Falone.
“Given how … the ethical and sustainability aspects of food play into what’s becoming popular in our cities, then for sure if the Impossible Burger came to town, there would be lines around the block.”
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