It was only a matter of time until Pat Brown, the CEO of buzzy food company Impossible Foods, began one of his signature rants, full of staggering statistics about the deleterious environmental effects of animal agriculture.
This is what Brown does at public appearances, and we’re about four minutes into the public Q&A of the company’s CES 2020 event. He’s just been asked a softball by an audience member about what inspired him to create a company with the ambitious goal of replacing all human-consumed animal protein with plant-based meat.
“Can you imagine,” Brown says, “We have less than half as many wild animals living on earth today across the entire tree of life than just 40 years ago, just because of our use of this ridiculous technology of food production.”
Brown sits forward a little in his seat on the makeshift stage, raising his hand to drive home the point.
“Nobody loves the fact that meat is made from the cadaver of an animal. They don’t love the technology, they just love the product. So if we could just come up with a better technology to produce foods that deliver everything that consumers want, we can solve the two biggest threats that humanity is facing today: catastrophic climate change, and a catastrophic meltdown and biodiversity.”
Brown’s on a roll now, leaning hard, gesturing, his voice becoming more urgent.
“Like, are you kidding me? I loved the job I had before, but this is the absolute, most important task in the world.”
Fans in the audience cheer and Brown settles down to answer more mundane questions about scaling production and target customers, mostly about the company’s new simulated-meat products: Impossible Pork and Impossible Sausage, which officially launched at the event — a proverbial fork in the road for a company that made its name on fake beef.
Brown’s signature diatribe answers why it’s No. 2 on Impossible’s meat hit list: Pork is a big deal in the global food supply. Although cows get most of the flak from environmentalists — both for the amount of land consumed and the methane they generate — meat from pigs is the No. 1 animal protein consumed in the world. In Asia especially, where eating burgers is less culturally relevant, ground pork is used as an ingredient in everything from fried rice to dumplings.
Not that pork is a slouch in the rest of the world. Sausage is particularly popular, and Impossible is taking advantage of its existing partnership with Burger King (you may have seen the commercials for the Impossible Whopper) to offer Impossible Sausage as an Impossible Croissan’wich at outlets in five regions — Savannah, Georgia; Lansing, Michigan; Springfield, Illinois; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Montgomery, Alabama — starting in late January.
Ticking off pork puts Impossible a step closer to accomplishing its mission of reducing and eventually eliminating the world’s dependence on real meat with so-close-you-may-not-even-taste-the-difference simulations. Rachel Konrad, Impossible Foods’ chief communications officer, says the company adopts a “worst first” approach to which ones to tackle.
“The worst production technology for meat in the world is a cow — it’s definitely the worst for animal agriculture. That said, you cannot transform the global food system without meaningfully addressing China. And you cannot meaningfully discuss the food chain in China without having a discussion about pork.”
Another reason we’re seeing Impossible Pork before Impossible Fish or Impossible Chicken is because its texture is close to beef, something the company’s already figured out. To make a pork substitute, the company used the same ingredients that are in the Impossible Burger, just in different quantities. In particular, heme, the substance that Impossible says gives meat its flavor, is present — there’s just less of it than in the company’s ersatz beef.
The result: a ground meat product that can be used in virtually any recipe that calls for ground pork, and one that doesn’t bring with it the same risks. Undercooking, for one, won’t be as disastrous, there’s less than half the fat, and there’s zero cholesterol or gluten. Impossible also designed it to qualify for kosher and halal meals, which could be a major coup for the millions of people who belong to religions that reject pork as part of a adherent’s diet.
However, the amount of sodium is considerably more than in regular pork (the Impossible burger is similarly saltier than its meat-base equivalent). Impossible Foods acknowledged the issue in a Medium post last month that essentially took apart the FDA’s nutritional guidelines on sodium intake. In any case, it clearly isn’t beneath Impossible to fall back on the old chef’s trick of just putting salt on everything to make it taste better.
The Taste Of Impossible Pork
Whether it’s the salt or not, I can confirm that Impossible Pork tastes like pork. The dishes I sampled at the event (which was held at Kumi restaurant at the Mandalay Bay resort in Las Vegas) were all pork dishes done in Asian style — Pork Dan Dan noodles, Pork Shumai dumplings, Pork sweet and sour meatballs, and the like — meaning they were heavily seasoned. That said, I couldn’t detect anything amiss with the texture and taste of the meat, and ever dish was delicious to my palate.
But ultimately the taste may not matter as much as you might think. With its ambitious mission and unbelievable word-of-mouth, Impossible Foods has cultivated a real fan base, one that shares emoji-laden Instagram videos of the company’s soy-based burgers grilling on sunny barbecues.
And really, how many people care that much about exactly how ground pork tastes? There isn’t the same cultural debate about whose pork dumplings are the best the way there is about burgers (it’s Five Guys, by the way). Impossible even describes pork as having “savory neutrality,” a low culinary bar if there ever was one. As long as its Impossible Pork doesn’t taste bad or weird, it’s probably a win.
By contrast, whole cuts of meat like pork chops have very little flexibility in how they should feel and taste. That’s why the pork unveiling doesn’t mention Impossible Bacon or chops, and it’ll probably be a while before those arrive, Konrad says.
“Whole cuts that have anatomy that have bigger tissues that have very different fat profiles, and are a lot more difficult, frankly. Our scientists are working really hard on that. But we are not at the point where we feel like it would be a viable substitute for meat lovers.”
The company’s stated mission of changing global food consumption at scale is undoubtedly a long game, but when projecting out you have to wonder how much time the company has? It’s been funded by almost $700 million and is growing at a fast clip, now at 600 employees from a little over 400 just a few months ago. But the fake-meat space is hot, with both independent rivals like Beyond Meat (which IPO’d in May] and traditional food companies (like Nestle’s Awesome Burger) vying to define the nascent space.
“We do not see Beyond Meat as a competitor at all, or any company that’s trying to provide an alternative to animal [agriculture],” says Konrad. “The only competition we see is the animal itself.”
That’s a predictable public stance, but the company’s marketing and splashy jump into pork products tell a different story: That whoever can make the most noise and win over the most customers in these early days of fake meat will have an outsize say in defining the space — the 28-ounce ribeye next to a plate of sliders. There’s a lot of heat in the plant-based kitchen, but Impossible Foods’ pork debut shows it still knows how to command the menu.