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Impossible Burger on more menus, but America's beef industry isn't budging

“The meat industry has been successful at convincing the government to help it continue to sell its products to consumers,” one expert said.
Image: Impossible Burger
A conventional beef burger, left, next to "The Impossible Burger."Nati Harnik / AP file

Located on a bustling corner in Manhattan’s NoHo neighborhood, Saxon and Parole serves a meat-heavy menu with bone marrow served two ways and four different cuts of steak. But the restaurant also serves something called the Impossible Burger.

It's a lab-made patty containing wheat and potato proteins, coconut oil, and heme, a soy-derived protein that is the key to the burger's meaty appearance and flavor. The latest version of the Impossible Burger, released at the Consumer Electronics Showcase in January, has won good reviews from foodies, who say it tastes surprisingly meaty.

Executive Chef Brad Farmerie was eager to take on the challenge of making a meatless dish indistinguishable among its beefy cousins, and was one of the first five chefs Impossible Foods chose to test out the burger in 2017.

“They chose chefs who were known for cooking meat,” Farmerie said. “Because as they say, it’s not something that they are trying to get vegetarians hooked on.”

Impossible Foods created the burger to get the 92 percent of the population that regularly eats meat to try meat alternatives. But despite its initial popularity, the Impossible Burger seems unlikely to make a dent in the demand for beef burgers.

Americans love their beef, and there is no sign of a slowdown in consumption. In 2017, Americans consumed about 12 million metric tons (26 billion pounds) of beef, an 8 percent increase from the approximately 11 million metric tons (24 billion pounds) consumed in 1990.

The bond with beef is preserved by a huge industry marketing machine and fully supported by politicians at all levels. The federal government directly encourages Americans to consume large amounts of beef through a system called the "beef checkoff program," supervised by the Agriculture Department. And this year, lawmakers in Nebraska will consider legislation restricting the label of "meat" to only animal products, making it a crime to label plant-based foods as meat.

Missouri passed such a law in August, and Wyoming, Tennessee and Virginia are considering similar regulations. Such laws would stymie alternative meat companies' plans to start labeling their products as "clean meat."

Roger Horowitz, historian and author of “Putting Meat on the American Table,” believes the American traditions around eating beef go deeper than hot dogs at Fourth of July events. Easy access to beef was appealing to many early immigrants.

“Having that access to meat equally across economic ladders is a part of democracy in America,” Horowitz said. “Critics of the food system need to think about inequality very much and the way inequality maps onto food choices.”

Today, the American beef tradition has allowed for the beef industry to become exceptionally popular and profitable, making $95 billion a year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Its place in American culture can even be summed up in one well-known phrase: “Beef: It’s what’s for dinner.”

The slogan was the brainchild of a marketing campaign funded by the Beef Marketing Board back in 1992. Recently, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association revamped this old campaign in an effort to use nostalgia to attract millennials who grew up watching that marketing campaign on TV.

The campaign is just one example of how hard the beef industry works to encourage the American beef tradition. In 2018, the meat industry spent $6.52 million total in lobbying campaigns (amounts calculated by combining Livestock and Meat Processing and Products contributions from OpenSecrets). The National Cattlemen's Beef Association contributed the most with $678,100.

In his book “Meatonomics,” David Simon attempts to show how the money from the beef lobbying campaigns affects the federal government.

“The meat industry has been successful at convincing the government to help it continue to sell its products to consumers,” said Simon, a lawyer, animal-rights advocate and vegan. “Our government is spending $80 million on beef alone to yield $400 million in extra sales each year of beef. It’s telling people to eat beef.”

Simon believes the reports about beef, the most-resource intensive meat, and climate change won’t convince Americans to reduce the amount of beef they consume. He said the government should instead step in and offer incentives, like those occasionally provided to people who buy electric cars and hybrids.

“Senators have a great deal of power and the beef industry has an enormous amount of lobbying power, because they are in every state."

Marion Nestle

But former New York University professor of nutrition Marion Nestle doesn’t believe this is something the government would ever deign to do. She spent her career analyzing how the food industry and the government influence consumers’ food choices. Nestle said the government supports and relies on big beef.

“Senators have a great deal of power and the beef industry has an enormous amount of lobbying power, because they are in every state,” she said.

The beef industry puts hundreds of thousands of dollars into political campaigns. As shown on Open Secrets, during the 2018 election cycle, livestock companies gave $278,656 to Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, $46,897 to Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., and $46,678 to Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., to name a few campaigns.

When the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee — comprised of health experts who plan the dietary guidelines for the USDA — proposed putting sustainability in the guidelines, the beef industry knew whom to turn to.

“They went straight to Congress and Congress instructed the secretary of agriculture not to have sustainability in the dietary guidelines,” Nestle said.

Having sustainability in the guidelines could encourage consumers to eat less meat but on March 12, 2015, 30 senators, many of whom receive extensive funding from the meat lobby, sent a letter to the USDA telling them not to include this in the dietary guidelines. (No Democrats signed the letter.)

When the guidelines were published, there was no mention of sustainability.

The threat of climate change might be growing stronger, but so far, it doesn’t appear to be a threat strong enough to take on a giant like the beef industry.

While Farmerie is happy to serve the Impossible Burger as an alternative on his meat-centric menu, he doesn’t expect it to replace the traditional beef patty anytime soon.

“The beef industry, it’s a massive machine,” he said. “I think that massive machines are very slow to turn.”

CORRECTION (Feb. 11, 2019, 10:56 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the amount of beef Americans consumed. It was about 12 million metric tons of beef in 2017, and about 11 million metric tons in 1990, not 12,011 tons and 11,046 tons respectively.