Impossible Foods wants to be ‘everywhere.’ First it has to get into China

November 11, 2021, 12:31 PM UTC

Pat Brown, CEO and founder of plant-based foods business Impossible Foods, says the company is looking to bring its meatless burgers and chicken nuggets “everywhere”—and that starts with the world’s biggest pork lover’s mecca: China.

“Welcoming us in is the biggest thing [China] can do to improve their food security,” says Brown, the former Stanford biochemistry professor who started the company in 2011, speaking to Fortune on the sidelines of the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow.

The company already sells its Impossible beef and pork in Hong Kong, but expanding and producing Impossible products in mainland China would make the world’s largest pork consumer less dependent on imports and reduce emissions, he argues. The company’s mission is to lower the emissions and environmental impact, including land and water use, of meat farming worldwide, Brown says.

Impossible Foods is already best known for its no-meat burgers, which are sold through restaurants and grocery stores in the U.S., Canada, Hong Kong, and Singapore; it also sells Impossible sausage and, as of this fall, chicken nuggets, in the U.S. Impossible began selling its freshly launched fake ground-pork products in restaurants and grocery stores in Hong Kong this autumn. But the company is still waiting for regulatory approval to expand into mainland China, the world’s largest market for meat. As of October, China accounted for about 40% of global pork imports, according to the USDA.

China has so far barred Impossible products because one ingredient in the fake beef and pork products is soy leghemoglobin, or “heme,” which is considered a genetically modified ingredient (Impossible chicken nuggets don’t use heme, which could ease their entry into China). But Brown dismissed that barrier, arguing that “the end is assured.”

“China, right now, has no regulatory process for us to go through, literally because our products are new enough that they haven’t created a regulatory process,” he said. “So that’s kind of the main thing that holds us up.”

Impossible has long been inching closer to expansion into mainland China; once it arrives, the company plans to build a “full ecosystem of production” where products are made domestically, the company said last year. But its competitors, who don’t face the same regulatory hurdles, have already made inroads. Alongside a cadre of local producers, Hong Kong–based producer Green Monday launched its OmniPork product on the mainland in 2019; chief rival Beyond Meat has been in the country since last April.

Impossible plans to expand its pork products to Singapore later this year. In the U.S., Impossible pork was launched through David Chang’s Momofuku Ssam Bar in late September.

Rapid expansion

Impossible is in the midst of a rapid expansion, cutting costs on its mainstay fake-beef products as the company grows. So far this year, it has slashed its suggested retail prices twice.

Brown says in the next few years the company could reach a “tipping point” at which Impossible products would cost the same as real meat. (They now usually cost more.) He argues that the company’s core beef product would have reached price parity by now if not for distribution costs that are higher than the bulk wholesale options available to butchers.

“It’s completely doable,” he said. “It’s just primarily a matter of scaling. And also taking more control of the process ourselves.”

Brown has long said the company’s true mission is to eliminate the animal farming industry—and its related emissions and environmental effects—and that to do so, his products must compete on taste, availability, health, and price. But it faces stiff competition from a growing cadre of rivals, including Beyond Meat, and headwinds from slower-than-expected uptake of plant-based options at U.S.-based fast-food chains.

To strike a blow at the traditional meat industry, Impossible is purposefully challenging the most popular meat products with plant-based alternatives—so no beef livers—and Brown said the company is working on developing other products, including dairy. Impossible should also be able to offer whole cuts—products like chicken breasts and pork loins, which pose different textural challenges than making a ground plant–based meat—”within a couple years.”

“It requires some additional technology beyond what we have. But we’re actively working on it. And I would say it’s making a ton of progress,” he said.

Similar to making a non-pork product that tastes porkier than a real pig, he said, “it’s not technically trivial—you have to be serious about wanting to do it—but it’s not rocket science.”

Impossible Foods has raised $1.6 billion in funding from investors including Bill Gates, Serena Williams, and Katy Perry, according to CrunchBase. Speaking to Fortune, Brown said the company will “eventually” go public but did not give a time frame. He declined to comment on reports that the company is in the midst of a fresh $500 million funding round that would value the company at $7 billion, as first reported by Bloomberg.

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