Last year I read an article about the Impossible Burger, a plant-based patty that was supposed to rival the real thing. Intrigued, I called a friend who lives in a neighboring town and appreciates strange but environmentally cool things, and we met at a restaurant that served Impossible Burgers.
They were good. Close to meat in taste and texture and – if the marketing hype was to be believed – produced in a way that would obviate the need for animal factory farms with all their cruelty and pollution.
There was just one problem. Those Impossible Burgers were $15.95, which is a lot in a $5 Whopper world. So, as promising as the concept was, the price would have to fall considerably before plant-based or lab-grown burgers changed the world.
It only took a year. Thanks to the fact that plants are both cheap to grow and infinitely scalable, the price of an Impossible Burger has fallen to the point that Burger King now offers an Impossible Whopper for only $1 more than the beef variety. And that’s just the beginning. Economies of scale will keep driving down costs, resulting in burgers that taste like beef, are healthier than beef, and, crucially, are dramatically cheaper than beef.
At that point hamburger, rendered obsolete by better tech, will simply disappear from the supply chain. Cows will then go the way of horses at the dawn of the automobile age, shrinking to a tiny fraction of their current population, no longer enslaved and mistreated, and free to return to their original place in nature.
Here’s an example of the kind of reporting you’ll be seeing a lot more of in coming years, courtesy of technology site CNet:
The Impossible Burger is coming to Burger King as the Impossible Whopper, in a market test that could lead to the largest restaurant industry embrace yet of a plant-based meat substitute. The Impossible Whopper will feature the same bun, cheese and condiments as a traditional Whopper, but with Impossible’s plant-based patty where animal meat is normally found.
Fifty-nine Burger King stores in the St. Louis area will offer it starting today, with a potential expansion to the other 7,100 US restaurants later in the year. Burger King is making an unusually high-profile endorsement of plant-based meat, while Impossible is facing its own Tesla Model 3 moment in terms of going mainstream.
I got a jump on the debut when I arrived at Impossible’s Silicon Valley headquarters carrying two bags of Whoppers from the local Burger King. There, J. Michael Melton, Impossible’s technical sales and culinary manager, cooked up a batch of the patties they’re supplying to Burger King, using the same broiler Burger King uses. He swapped them in for the beef in the Whoppers (with professional dexterity that somehow left the burgers appealing) and I took a couple bites.
The remarkable thing was how unremarkable they were: Nothing gives away the fact that this Whopper contains a different main ingredient.
The patties supplied to Burger King will be based on Impossible’s new 2.0 formulation that was announced at CES in January, 2019. Among other upgrades, this formulation holds up better in restaurant environments like sitting in hot holding trays or the 6-inch drop at the end of the conveyor that grills the patty for exactly 2 minutes and 35 seconds at 630 degrees.
“We’re making meat from plants. That’s never been done before,” Impossible Foods founder Pat Brown told me, tacitly demoting competitor Beyond Meat’s plant-based burger, which has been offered at most of the 1,100 Carl’s Jr. restaurants since the beginning of 2019. “People have made plant-based replacements for meat, but they haven’t made plant-based meat.”
One way the Impossible Whopper will indeed differ from the original is price, costing a significant $1 more in an industry where brands have gone to war brandishing menus of items that only cost a dollar. As with electric cars, price parity with the established choice is a future linchpin to mainstream success.
“Once we have products that taste the same or better and that cost less, plant-based and clean meat will simply take over,” according to Bruce Friedrich, executive director of the Good Food Institute, which champions plant- and cell-based meats.
“So very little will change in people’s everyday lives as more and more meat is produced either from plants or from cells. Consumers will continue to buy burgers, chicken sandwiches and sausages (but) those products will simply not have the adverse impact on our environment and global health.”
Now the real fun begins, as plant-based burgers try to use their first-mover advantage to head off the onslaught of lab-grown meat start-ups that are raking in hundreds of millions of Silicon Valley venture capital dollars. Because “cultured meat” is a branch of biotech, it will, without doubt, improve exponentially in coming years, moving beyond hamburger and chicken nuggets into steaks and sushi. The winners are impossible to predict, but the process is capitalist creative destruction at its most spectacular — and great news no matter how you slice it.