How these Silicon Valley companies are disrupting the meat industry with their 'meatless meat'

San Francisco Bay Area companies are making meatless burgers, shrimps and other meatless meat products, but some environmentalists say these genetically modified foods are being rushed to the market without adequate testing.

San Francisco firms say they're helping to solve environmental problems but critics say we're 'guinea pigs'

It looks like ground chuck, but even though it 'bleeds' when you cook it, the Impossible Burger is 100 per cent vegetarian. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

It sizzles and oozes, the way a burger should. Nadiv Geiger, a chef at Vina Enoteca in Palo Alto, Calif., says he has to coat his pan with a little more oil than normal for this burger, but other than that it cooks like a normal patty. But this patty is made of ingredients a cow would happily eat.

The creators of the Impossible Burger say the future is in his pan: a world free of factory farming. But critics fear he's frying up a potentially dangerous Frankenburger, one among a growing number of high-tech, genetically modified meatless meat products coming out of Silicon Valley labs.

At the Redwood, Calif., headquarters of Impossible Foods, principal scientist Celeste Holz-Schietinger stands in front of several glass bowls filled with a variety of ingredients. She begins to add them together, demonstrating in less than five minutes how an Impossible Burger is made. It begins life as a mixture of proteins and the key ingredient, the one that makes this veggie burger bleed. Its nickname for it is "plant blood": heme, a molecule that can be found in every plant and animal.

Leghemoglobin or 'heme' is a naturally occurring iron-containing molecule, which makes meat taste like meat. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"The molecule is identical to the heme molecule that is in a cow, in that steak or even in your blood," Holz-Schietinger says, "and that heme is what's responsible for the flavour generation of meat." 

They're using soy leghemoglobin derived from soybeans, but she says growing vast quantities of soybeans wouldn't have been sustainable. 

"So what we did is took the gene that is from the soybean and added it to yeast," Holz-Schietinger says, "so that we had yeast creating large quantities of our leghemoglobin."

Holz-Schietinger pours the red liquid from the genetically modified yeast into the bowl of protein powders and begins to mix.

"It starts to look kind of like lean meat," she says.

When she begins to fry it, it crackles and spits in the pan, leaking out what looks like blood and fat. It tastes meat-ish. It's so juicy, liquid spurts out of the burger onto the ground.

Impossible Foods founder Pat Brown says he expects to sell the company's products in Canada 'within the next couple of years.' (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Plant-based shrimp, meatless meatballs

In the coming years, grocery stores may be full of similar foods produced in San Francisco Bay Area labs. Companies like Memphis Meats are making meatless meatballs, chicken and duck. New Wave Foods is creating a plant-based replacement for the most commonly consumed seafood in the United States: shrimp.

In a small kitchen shared by other tech startups, Xander Shapiro, an executive with New Wave Foods, pops a few of the company's shrimps into a toaster oven. The shrimp are made of pea protein and algae.

"We take sort of typical ingredients you might find in your making a loaf of bread and we put it together in a certain way so that we're able to replicate what are the typical muscle and fibre and texture of a shrimp," Shapiro says.

In a few minutes Shapiro pulls them out of the oven toasted golden brown. They're crunchy on the outside and sinewy on the inside. They taste not altogether unlike real shrimp.

"The broader audience is the so-called flexitarian," Shapiro says. "That's almost half the population trying to eat less meat, trying to eat more plants. They want something that's more familiar and accessible. And so I think that's been the big shift. They want an analog that reminds them of the thing that they're willing to give up as long as it still tastes good." 

Their shrimp is 100 per cent vegetarian, but another Silicon Valley company is actually growing real meat, using fish cells.

A shrimp made from algae and pea protein. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Finless Foods co-founder Brian Wyrwas pulls a glass container out of the fridge and places it under a microscope. He's looking at cells taken from a carp, which he says are "easier to work with" than cells from the fish they're eventually hoping to sell: bluefin tuna.

"We take a small sample from a fish and we take just the cells that we want from it that will grow very quickly, and then we grow them out into massive numbers," says co-founder Mike Seldon. "And then all at once we turn them into the muscle, fat and connective tissue that people want to eat. They still want the meat that they are used to, and they want that to be animal cells that has a very particular taste to it that we have not yet been able to replicate using plant matter."

Brian Wyrwas, co-founder of Finless Foods, examines a mixture of media and fish cells, which will be grown into meat. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Disrupting the meat industry

These Bay Area companies claim they're tech platforms for food, disrupting the meat industry while helping to solve environmental problems like decreasing fish stocks and increasing greenhouse gases. And they're attracting hundreds of millions of dollars from investors like Bill Gates. Impossible Foods alone has raised about $300 million US, which, according to founder Pat Brown, will allow the company to expand its range of products. 

"We made a strategic choice to start with ground beef, but we have ongoing research that is directed across the board at the other categories of animal products: fish, milk, all the other kinds of cuts of meat, even whole eggs," Brown says.

And he says their products won't be restricted to sales in the U.S.

Carp cells will be grown into meat using the same technology used to 'print' organs. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"I'd say with pretty high confidence that we'll be launching in Canada within the next couple of years," Brown says.

People are 'guinea pigs'

But some environmentalists like Dana Perls, senior food and technology campaigner for Friends of the Earth, say these new genetically modified foods haven't been adequately tested.

"Companies like Impossible Foods are rushing GMO ingredients onto the market and onto our dinner plates," Perls says. "People are becoming guinea pigs; we're being used to test food that we don't actually need."

Even though it's being sold in restaurants, this burger hasn't yet been certified as totally safe for human consumption by the Food and Drug Administration. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

The Impossible Burger is a good example of the problem, she says. The company's genetically modified version of heme has never been in the human diet. While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn't actually require companies to test new food products, Impossible Foods voluntarily asked the FDA to certify its burger as safe. However the FDA said it couldn't do that without more data, which Impossible Foods general counsel Myra Pasek says the company has now submitted.

"We have done the testing," Brown says. "It's absolutely safe. Certainly I would say our burger is substantially safer than the same burger made from a cow."

Perls acknowledges the company may have followed standard procedure, but says the entire premise of voluntary testing is flawed. 

"Currently the regulatory system for GMOs is completely broken and needs to be overhauled," Perls says. "We don't do complete assessments of genetically engineered organisms. Let's not repeat the mistakes of history where we trust companies to say it's safe only to learn that actually it's not safe. The technology has raced ahead, and our current regulatory system has fallen drastically behind."

Silicon Valley isn't waiting around. The goal, according to Brown: "Completely replace animals as a food production technology by 2035."

Even though Impossible Foods will be able to churn out almost 450,000 kilograms of its burger every month, it's just one-tenth of one per cent of the ground beef consumed monthly in the United States. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

The industry still has a lot of ground to make up. Impossible Foods, for instance, a well-funded company in advanced stages of production, can churn out 450,000 kilograms of its burger a month. As a fraction of ground beef consumed monthly in the U.S., that's less than a tenth of one per cent.

"So we still have a lot of scaling ahead of us," Brown says. 


Kim Brunhuber

Los Angeles correspondent

Kim Brunhuber is a CBC News Senior Reporter based in Los Angeles. He has travelled the world from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan as a videojournalist, shooting and editing pieces for TV, radio and online. Originally from Montreal, he speaks French and Spanish, and is also a published novelist.