The Oakland plant, which will begin to produce burgers this summer, is the first concrete sign that Impossible Foods and flagship offering are anything more than utopic moonshots. The plant will prove whether or not the concept can scale, which has implications for public health and the environment.
It also has consequences for the emerging clean-meat industry, of which Impossible Foods is an early (and highly visible) player. Unlike Boca or Morningstar before them, which sought to corner the vegetarian market, these companies aim to appeal to hardcore meat-eaters by creating a meaty plant-based product. Beyond Meat, a popular vegetarian brand, has dipped a toe in those mainstream waters with its beet-juice "bleeding" Beyond Burger. And earlier this week, the start-up Memphis Meats announced that it had successfully created a lab-grown chicken strip -- at a whopping price per pound of $9,000.
But few of these companies have proved that they can commercialize yet, and even those that have, like the Beyond Burger, still only sell at Whole Foods. With this new facility, a spokesperson for Impossible Foods said, the company’s production capacity will increase 250-fold -- allowing it to supply 1,000 restaurants by the end of this year.
“The mission of the company is to making the existing method for producing meat obsolete,” said Brown on the phone from California, several weeks before the factory’s ribbon-cutting. “That means we need to be competitive everywhere. And soon we will be.”
Proclamations like this one have earned Brown and his six-year-old company constant attention almost since its founding. A former biochemistry professor at Stanford, Brown became interested in industrial meat production after learning that it’s a major contributor to climate change: livestock account for nearly 15 percent of all greenhouse gasses, according to the United Nations.
Brown became convinced that, given enough time and resources, science could essentially solve that problem by engineering plant-based “meats” that look and taste like the original artifact. Since 2011, he has received more than $180 million in investments from the likes of Bill Gates and Google Ventures to pursue the project.
His first offering is the Impossible Burger: a patty composed largely of wheat and potato proteins that -- thanks to a iron-containing molecule called heme -- looks, handles and (reportedly!) tastes quite a lot like ground beef. The burger has caught the eye of several high-end chefs, including New York's David Chang and San Francisco's Traci Des Jardins, who have put the burger on their respective menus for roughly $15 apiece.
But even as the burger earned rave reviews from curious patrons, its central tenet has remained unproven. Namely, Brown still has to show that he can churn out burgers en masse -- and that red-blooded meat-eaters will buy them.
That could prove difficult in two respects, say analysts and advocates who know the industry. First, Brown and his team will need to optimize their supply chain and manufacturing process to bring the price of the Impossible Burger on par with conventional beef.
Some of that will happen naturally, said Bruce Friedrich, the executive director of the Good Food Institute: all food startups, regardless of what they make, benefit from economies of scale as they standardize and mechanize the way they make their food. Prices will also come down once Impossible Foods has a reliable distribution network. And the company has another advantage, as well: Compared to conventional livestock slaughter, its methods are inherently more efficient.
But sourcing has still provided challenges -- such as the question of heme. The iron-containing molecule is what makes the Impossible Burger taste like meat. Brown initially extracted it from the root nodules of soybeans, but that process, at scale, costs a fortune and releases a lot of greenhouse gasses. Impossible Foods eventually skirted the issue by engineering yeast that produce heme, meaning that the company no longer needs to extract the molecule from soybeans. It can be produced in vats.
It's also not the only uncertainty that faces Impossible Foods. The company's biggest challenge may be getting it to catch on not only with the coastal Whole Foodies who have flocked to Manhattan or Los Angeles to try it thus far, but with average and middle-income Americans. Brown is adamant that his product is not designed to appeal to vegetarians; he's after the old-school meat-eater, who is motivated largely by price, taste and convenience.
John Coupland, a professor of food science at Penn State and the president of the Institute of Food Technologists, believes this type of consumer might prove difficult to convince, even if plant-based meats are priced on par with their conventional equivalents. Some focus-groups and studies have suggested that consumers aren't entirely comfortable with the idea of meat that doesn't technically have any animal in it.
“So much is going to play out in psychology, more even than in chemistry,” Coupland said. “Meat is an incredibly gendered thing to eat. How is that going to play out? Are you picking the light beer by having this stuff? It’s too early to tell if it’s really going to take off.”
We may find out very shortly. While Impossible Foods is not releasing any details on the new plant’s exact capacity, cost or headcount until after the March 22 launch, it’s already clear that the facility represents a significant ramp-up from what the company has produced thus far.
By the end of the year, Brown said, the burger will be in multiple restaurants, including some chains like Bareburger, which debuted the Impossible Burger at its flagship location in February. Those restaurants won’t all be coastal hotspots, Brown added -- they’re pursuing deals in the heartland, as well. Brown has also reportedly been in talks with McDonald’s, though the company doesn’t have that capacity yet.
Such a coup could move the whole industry much closer to dinner tables across America. And other plant-based and clean meat companies are watching the experiences of Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat closely, Friedrich said. Their success or failure in scaling could inform the whole market.
"This is brand-new for the plant-based meat industry," he said. "It's lifting the whole sector and inspiring other entrepreneurs and food scientists to get involved with it."
More from Wonkblog: