It’s possible you’ve heard of the Impossible Burger. Heralded as a bleeding veggie patty that looks, tastes and even sizzles like meat, the product is sold in almost 2,000 restaurants—stretching across the bun-slinging continuum from Bareburger to White Castle.
But not everyone is in cheeseburger paradise. Environmental organization Friends of the Earth, which claims 1 million U.S. members and activists and is part of an advocacy network spanning 74 nations, raised a red flag about the speedy advance of such food technology. Specifically, the group pointed to companies including Impossible Foods—maker of its eponymous burger—as well as Perfect Day and Memphis Meats, which develop animal-free dairy and lab-grown meat, respectively.
The nonprofit group warned in a report Wednesday that the advent of genetically engineered proteins and lab-made meat hasn’t been accompanied by enough research, and that increased safety assessments, regulations and transparent labeling should be put in place.
“We need real data,” said Dana Perls, senior food and agriculture campaigner at Friends of the Earth. “People have been clear that they want real, truly sustainable organic food, as opposed to venture capitalist hype which could lead us down the wrong path.”
The report focuses on what the group said are potential health and safety problems, environmental impacts and a lack of transparency associated with the nascent industry. Friends of the Earth has raised concerns about “heme,” the protein derived from genetically engineered yeast that Impossible Foods said gives the burger its faux meatiness. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has asked for more “direct” evidence of safety as well as more testing on allergens, as reported by the New York Times last summer.
“It needs to be done by a third party,” Perls said of testing heme, with research “on long-term health implications.”
Impossible Foods said a panel of experts it hired has twice determined the substance to be safe, in 2014 and 2017. The company said its product is sustainable, that it has complied with all regulations and even submitted data to the FDA in the interest of transparency. Company spokeswoman Rachel Konrad said in an email that the Friends of the Earth report displays a “total disregard for science, facts and reality.”
Perfect Day plans “to perform exactly the type of analyses” third-party watchdog groups are suggesting, Perumal Gandhi, the company’s co-founder, said in an e-mail. Memphis Meats disagreed with the Friends of the Earth report, saying the company values transparency and is working with regulators on safety and labeling rules for its future products.
Lab-made and fake meat are a critical area of food sustainability research, given growing demand for meat products in the developing world, the deleterious effect the meat industry has on the environment and how climate change is altering where food can be grown. The marketing of fake meat products often focuses on the benefits they confer, using “sustainable” and “Earth-friendly” as selling points.
However, Friends of the Earth said, companies shouldn’t make such claims without publicizing a complete assessment of environmental impact, from a product’s creation to disposal. Ingredients in fake meat often require traditional industrial inputs such as water, chemicals and fossil fuels, which may detract from the overall environmental benefit. A 2015 study published in Environmental Science and Technology found that lab-grown meat products, while using less of the agricultural inputs needed for meat derived from traditional livestock, require more energy to produce the final product.
Perls said both the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture should be involved in this new arena, with the FDA examining health and safety and the USDA evaluating environmental impact. Lab-grown meat startups backed by the likes of Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates and Tyson Foods have already caught the attention of both agencies.
The FDA didn’t respond to a request for comment on the new report.
The growing debate over lab-grown and fake meat has placed environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth in a strange position. As an environmental organization that’s long fought intensive meat production, it now finds itself right alongside traditional agribusiness in questioning these innovations. Perls acknowledged the irony but was quick to point out that “we’re not bedfellows.”
She said her group wants to make sure the pursuit of sustainable food products is done as transparently and safely as possible.
“We’ve had the experience of watching the environmental impacts of some food products, and we really can’t afford to create more unsustainable food systems that take us in another wrong direction,” she said.