“We can continue to improve [our meatless product] now until forever, and the cow is not going to get any better at being meat.”
This week on Too Embarrassed to Ask, all our meat questions got answered. Pat Brown, the founder and CEO of Impossible Foods, brought juicy burgers to the studio to support his claim that burgers not made of cows can actually smell, feel and taste just as good. Hosts Kara Swisher and Lauren Goode grilled him, but despite all the bad jokes, he took the heat and made his point: “If you ate a quarter-pound Impossible Burger compared to the same burger made from a cow, you’d reduce your greenhouse gas footprint by the equivalent of 17 miles of driving an average American car, your water footprint by the equivalent of a 10-minute shower, and you free up 75 square feet of land for wildlife restoration.”
You can read some of the highlights from their discussion here, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Lauren Goode: Hi. I’m Lauren Goode, co-host of Too Embarrassed to Ask, and I wanted to add a quick note before we begin this episode. We taped this interview with Pat Brown, the CEO of Impossible Foods, earlier this week, and shortly after we taped, news broke that the FDA has expressed concerns about the safety of the Impossible Burger, specifically the one ingredient that makes this plant-based burger more burger-like. According to a report in the New York Times, this ingredient, which is called soy leghemoglobin, has raised regulatory concerns, and at this point, the burger is not officially FDA-approved.
When we asked Impossible Foods for an update, a spokeswoman for the company said that this report was irresponsible, inaccurate and highly misleading, adding that the burger is totally safe to eat and totally complies with all regulations for food safety. We get the sense that there’s still more that’s going to unfold here, but for now, here’s our earlier interview with Pat Brown, and I should note that in the interview, he actually talks a fair amount about this particular ingredient.
Kara Swisher: Hi. I’m Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode.
Lauren Goode: And I’m Lauren Goode, senior tech editor at The Verge.
And you’re listening to Too Embarrassed to Ask, coming to you from the Vox Media Podcast Network. This is the show where we answer all of your embarrassing questions about consumer tech.
It could be anything, like, “Is bike sharing the thing that will make Uber obsolete or will Uber take care of that itself?”
I think we know the answer to that.
“Will sexism in tech ever change, and what needs to be done to make that actually happen?”
And, “When will Kara Swisher allow herself to have a cookie?” Or maybe a burger, like a meatless burger?
I will have a burger. I cannot have a cookie because I’m still on this Whole30 diet.
Well, it’s a good thing we’re not talking about cookies on today’s show.
Yes. I may take a bite of this burger that’s coming, apparently. But let’s explain. So send us your questions. We really do read them all. Find us on Twitter or tweet them to @recode or to myself or to Lauren with the #tooembarrassed.
We also have an email address. It’s firstname.lastname@example.org. And a friendly reminder: “embarrassed” has two Rs and two Ss.
Today on Too Embarrassed to Ask we are talking about food, Kara’s favorite topic as of late since she’s been depriving herself. But no, we’re not talking about Kara’s Whole30 diet.
It’s more like Whole20.
Explain what the Whole30 diet is.
That’s all I need to know about it. She’s got a spark in her eye now.
Yeah. All whole foods, no sugar, no dairy, no bread, all of the things that make life worth living.
Do you feel better?
Well, there you go. There’s your testimonial. But we’re not talking about that diet today. We’re talking to Pat Brown. He’s the chief executive officer of Impossible Foods, which is known for its Impossible Burger, a meatless burger that is supposed to be juicy like a real beef burger.
And it is.
Like you’re biting into a real beef burger.
We did, we had it at our Code Conference and had Pat onstage to talk about it two years ago, I can’t believe it. Food tech is an area of great interest to me and a great interest right now, not just the logistics of delivering food or having robots serve food but actually making the food in ways that are supposedly more environmentally friendly, healthier, sustainable. And we wanted to talk to Impossible Foods and check in to find out if this kind of approach can actually scale. They also got a recent funding we’re going to talk about and a bunch of other things, where it’s going after a couple of years now.
That’s right. Welcome to the show.
Pat Brown: Thank you.
LG: So we are actually going to be trying the Impossible Burger at some point on this show. I know that’s all exactly what you wanted. You wanted to hear us chewing on the burgers. They’re currently being ordered and delivered to us. So we’re going to try it again after we already tried it at Code Conference a couple of years ago.
LG: But for now, let’s have a conversation about it.
KS: Yes. Pat, welcome to Too Embarrassed to Ask. So you’ve been around for six years, and we talked to you two years ago when you were debuting the burgers. You had been scientifically engineering them. I don’t know how you want that word to be used. But you were getting them together and starting the company. So why don’t we do a little background for people who don’t know the story, just a very brief background of Impossible Foods.
Sure, yeah. It’s a company that I founded about six years ago with the mission of figuring out how to completely replace animals as a technology for food production, basically developing a better, more sustainable way to produce all the foods that we get today from animals — meat, fish and dairy foods — and make them without any compromise in all the qualities that consumers care about. In fact, potentially better than anything we can make with today’s technology by making them directly out of primarily just simple plant ingredients.
And you were at Stanford, is that correct?
Yeah, I was a professor in the medical school at Stanford for 25 years before I got into this new gig.
Right. And what prompted you? What was the … Just seeing all the heart attacks? What was it?
No, no, no, no, no. First of all, I loved the job I had at Stanford. It was the job I would have created for myself if I had that power, so it was just perfect for me. But I had a sabbatical, and I wanted to pick the problem where I felt like it could have the biggest positive impact on the world, and it was the use of animals in food production technology, which is by far the most destructive technology on Earth today.
That may sound like a really outrageous opinion, but it’s actually an opinion, for example, that’s shared by the UN Environment program and many environmentalists. The reason I think you don’t hear much about it is that people make the assumption that since the vast majority of the world’s population love meat, and it’s a very important part of their quality of life, as well as nutrition, and there’s no way in the world you’re going to persuade them to stop eating it or even reduce their consumption, and therefore, we’re stuck.
But actually, the reason we’re not stuck is that the problem isn’t that people love meat, it’s that we’ve defined meat too narrowly. That is, we’ve defined it in terms of the technology that we use today to produce it as opposed to in terms of what consumers actually value. We actually have very good data on this. What consumers actually value is the special kind of deliciousness they get from meat and dairy foods and fish and so forth, the nutritional value, protein and iron and stuff like that, and the affordability and convenience. But it turns out they love it not because it is made using animals, it’s in spite of the fact that we use animals to make it, and that’s what we had discovered in our own research, and it kind of makes a lot of sense.
And when you frame the problem that way, it just comes down to how can we make foods that deliver everything consumers value in the foods that we’re getting from animals today without any kind of compromise, ideally outperforming? And if we could do that and just put them in the market and let the market work, we could effectively solve the world’s greatest environmental issue right now and potentially with the speed that market-based solutions have. As a scientific problem, it was something that was in my comfort zone. It’s just basically how do we make something that’s defined in terms of its biochemical properties? I felt sure I could do it.
KS: Okay. All right. Can you talk about plant-based meat and how it works? Just, again, for non-scientists. And the juiciness, you just referred to it, is the experiential part of meat, which gives people pleasure. Is that just for marketing? I think it’s necessary. People really like that part of a burger for sure. It’s how they market them, anyway, when you see an ad.
There’s a whole bunch of things that are important to consumers, obviously, and juiciness is part of it, the textural properties, the mouth feel, the way it behaves when you cook it.
The way it smells, the explosion of aromas you get during cooking, the flavor experience, the whole shebang. And if you compromise on any of that, it’s going to be at your expense, because consumers are not going to compromise on the pleasure they get from meat. So for us, it was a big scientific challenge, because although the nutrition and affordability part is a piece of cake, that was already solved a long time ago, you can get all the nutrition of a burger for 1/20th the cost with readily available plant sources, but deliciousness was really hard. But it was just a hard scientific problem.
Fortunately, we have just by far the best group of scientists ever to work on food, and they studied meat as if it were a disease, basically, i.e., if you’re trying to come up with a cure for some cancer, you start by doing the hard work of understanding in fundamental terms how the normal cells behave and what goes awry in cancer. And then you can — rather than taking wild swings at the problem — you can make very, very deliberate choices in solving it.
We took the same approach to meat. We wanted to understand it precisely in molecular terms and what gives rise to all those sensory characteristics that consumers value so that then we would be sure we’d be able to do this, and it proved true. We could go out and find sustainable, scalable, affordable plant sources for ingredients that matched — with respect to the salient biochemical properties — the molecular components of meat, and then use that to make our own meat.
LG: Talk about that a little bit more in specifics but also in terms that, as Kara said, non-scientists would understand. What is it about …
LG: Oh, no, that’s okay. What is it about your burger that gives it that juiciness? What technically are you doing?
KS: And the burger is made out of what? I know what it is.
Sure. It’s made out of protein, not carbohydrates, that we get from wheat, a protein, not carbohydrates, that we get from potato, fats, vegetable oils, mostly coconut oil, and a critical ingredient is a protein that we produce in yeast called … It’s a heme protein that turns out to be basically the single thing that separates meat categorically from all other foods in terms of its flavor profile.
KS: Heme meaning blood.
Well, heme is a molecule that’s found in every living cell, bacteria, plants and so forth. It’s super abundant in animal tissues. In blood, it’s the most familiar place where you see heme because in hemoglobin, heme is the molecule that carries oxygen from your lungs to your tissues. In fact, geeky science, basically, heme is the molecule that is the kind of interface between organisms and the oxygen in the air pretty much across the board. If heme didn’t exist, I would say life on Earth wouldn’t be able to benefit from the oxygen in the air, so it’s an unbelievably important molecule throughout life, but it turns out that that’s not why it’s valuable in meat.
KS: It’s tasty.
Yeah. Heme is a great catalyst, and it catalyzes a chemical reaction in your mouth that generates the flavor and smell of blood in the raw form. And when you cook meat and the protein that’s holding the heme unfolds, it catalyzes all the reactions, all the cooking chemistry that take simply nutrients like amino acid, sugars and fats that are present in any cell and turns them into hundreds of volatile aroma compounds that are the unmistakable taste of meat.
KS: Right. Why haven’t others done this before? You’ve been working on this for several years, but distribution is limited. Meanwhile, people can buy all kinds of veggie burgers right now at their local grocery store and Beyond Meat burgers at Safeway and Whole Foods and now Kroger’s, too. How do you get this to mass distribution, and what’s necessary to succeed? First of all, others basically do versions of burgers that just … they taste like veggie burgers, essentially. They don’t taste like anything like … And they’re meant to replace, but they don’t really replace.
Yeah. I can’t give a perfect answer to that. I’d say the vast majority of people who have set out to make foods that are sensible replacements for meat, they start out with the premise that their target consumer is someone who’s looking for an alternative to meat. Our mission requires us to compete successfully for the hardcore, uncompromising meat lover who has no interest or minimal interest in replacing meat but will replace meat if you deliver something that outperforms in terms of what they value.
To do that is a really hard scientific problem, so you have to approach it in a way that food companies — just in general I think this pretty much true across the board — don’t approach food, which is start by studying … So we basically said, step one, we have to understand meat better than it’s ever been understood before. We have to be the world’s meat experts before we even start working on this problem, and that’s how we were able to discover a lot of very fundamental things about what underlies the sensory properties of meat, particularly heme. And I would say basically, without heme you can’t make meat. Heme, if you crave meat, if you crave the flavor of meat, what you crave is the flavor of heme and its reaction products.
KS: Okay. So nobody’s ever gone at it that way, the idea of … It’s interesting, you say you’re trying to switch meat lovers, not people who don’t want to eat meat anymore. It’d be like my profile. If I could, if I do eat meat, I’d rather not, but I like meat.
Yeah, you and the vast majority of people. You’re not going to stop eating meat, but you don’t value the fact that we use animals to produce it.
KS: No. I’m aware of the problems.
Yeah. For us, the mission of the company is to solve this big environmental problem. The way we’re going about it is by creating products that can compete in the marketplace against the foods that we get from animals.
KS: Give the people what they want.
Yeah. And compete in the marketplace particularly for the consumers who are currently buying the foods that we get from animals, not vegetarians. We have zero interest really in vegetarian customers. In fact, I’m not being ironic, every time we sell a burger to a vegan or a vegetarian, it’s actually a complete waste in terms of our mission.
LG: I have had the burger, and I’m going to have it, but yeah, I guess I’m someone that you don’t necessarily need to turn.
KS: Because you’ve gone off meat. You’ve gone off meat.
LG: Maybe my significant other is because we’re a split household, so it’s always great if he can sort of … But how challenging is it to get this to the mass market? You just opened a factory in Oakland, I believe.
LG: Where you said you plan to make one million pounds of ground plant, I use quotes here, “beef” a month, which is a lot. Kara asked earlier about mass distribution in grocery stores, and how challenging is that to make this heme component a reality on sort of a mass scale?
First of all, the amount of ground beef that’s sold in the U.S. every year, it’s about a billion pounds a month. So a million pounds sounds like a lot to me, but it’s 0.1 percent of the volume of ground beef that’s sold every day just in the U.S., so it’s a huge scaling problem. We knew that going in. In our kind of strategic plan, what we always are looking ahead to is by 2035, we want to have basically catalyzed the replacement of animals as food production technology globally, full stop. And that means we’re always thinking about scale and supply chain and so forth, not just immediate but long term and planning accordingly. It is a big challenge.
For the heme, that was something we had to do all ourselves, and fortunately, we have just this … I can’t say enough good things about our R&D team because these guys are just the most amazing scientists. They figured out a scalable, affordable way to produce heme in sufficient quantities arbitrarily scalable to match the heme content of all the world’s meat and fish supply. Right now, we just have to produce enough for our burger production, but basically, we engineered a yeast cell, or they engineered a yeast cell, our R&D team, to be able to … The yeast is naturally able to produce heme. It’s completely self-sufficient producing, but basically they turbocharged its heme biosynthesis and introduced a gene for a plant protein that kind of holds the heme and delivers it when you cook the meat.
LG: So you’re saying this can be produced at scale?
Oh, yeah. It’s a very non-trivial problem, but it’s one that our R&D team has figured out.
KS: All right. Let’s get to the business, too. More specifically, you just got a big funding from a bunch of people. How much was it?
It was on the order of a little above $75 million.
KS: A lot of money. A lot of money.
KS: From a lot of the biggest Silicon Valley people.
For people like me, that’s serious bucks.
KS: Yeah, that’s a lot of money for anyone.
LG: What’s your company valued at now?
That’s confidential information.
KS: A lot. That’s a lot of …
LG: A lot of burgers.
KS: A lot of burgers. Anyway. It was too easy. So here you are, a lot of money to do this because you got to grow the distribution, you got to grow the making and marketing. Probably marketing is really an enormous thing besides just making the burgers themselves.
It’s small compared to the making part. So far, we’ve had virtually no marketing budget.
KS: Because you’re getting a lot of press about it.
Yeah, we’ve just relied on that. But when we go to scale, that’s going to probably be more and more important.
KS: Yeah, absolutely. Who’s your biggest competitors now? Is it like a Hampton Creek, which makes the mayonnaise, or Beyond Meat or the beef industry or is it all of these?
No, no, no. It’s just the incumbent industry that’s producing …
For our burger, it’s the beef industry, yeah. And that’s really the only competition we care about. Anyone else who’s making a product that can compete against meat from an animal for a meat-eating consumer is an ally, not a competitor. And when you look at the scale of the problem that we’re taking on, I would say seriously we would welcome anyone else who’s doing that well.
So no, we have zero interest in competing with anyone else who’s in that business. And it would be stupid from a business standpoint as well because the market size of the meat industry globally is more than a trillion dollars a year. The market size of the …
KS: Veggie burger.
… of the meat replacements, I don’t even know how big it is, but it’s minuscule by comparison, so we have zero interest in competing for that.
KS: How do they feel, the big beef guys? Because I’m guessing they’re guys, and I’m guessing they’re scary. I’m scared of them compared to the cigarette guys.
They’re actually mostly women and quite tiny. How do they feel? I can’t really speak for them. I think that they haven’t really overtly done much to threaten us, so I suspect that when we’re larger and having an impact on their market that there’ll be some negative reactions.
KS: I think they got a lot of people talking about it and eating meat, more than ever, I think.
KS: Because the rest of the world is all picking up on it, China and areas that never did.
Yeah. This is the reason why internally we feel such a sense of urgency about our mission and why we have such ambitious growth goals — even though we could be perfectly successful as a company with a much less ambitious goals — because we see this as such an urgent problem. The global consumption of meat is expected to go up by about 50 percent in the next 25 years, and we’re already using about half of the land surface of Earth either grazing or raising feed crops for livestock. That’s land that formerly provided wildlife habitat and so forth. And then there’s the greenhouse gas footprint and the water footprint and all those sorts of things. And when you look at how bad the footprint is right now, and you increase that by 50 percent, it’s pretty catastrophic. So we have to get ahead of that.
LG: What’s a goal for you in terms of the reduction of meat consumption, if you could see the average American family consume X amount less meat per month?
No, we want them to consume as much meat as they want. We just don’t want it to be made from animals.
KS: So you’re redefining meat.
Yes, that’s exactly the way I think about it, is that … Actually, and it’s interesting, if you think about it that way, the space of possibilities for meat defined as a food that has that unique flavor and sensory and nutritional profile today is limited by the finite number of animals that are being used as a technology to produce it. But if you say there’s this particular sort of broadly defined flavor and sensory profile that anyone would recognize as meat, and if you say, “I want meat for dinner,” any number of things will satisfy it. But today, we can only get them from this small set of possibilities that really are just a tiny fraction of the space of possible meat flavors and textures that could be created.
We don’t have those limitations. We started with a bunch of stuff that doesn’t look anything or taste anything like meat and made something that looks and tastes exactly like meat and is recognized as meat, and it happens to be beef, but it could’ve been Brontosaurus. Or we could’ve just said let’s create the meat that, if it were on the menu, a meat-loving consumer would choose it above every other meat on the menu.
LG: We have a pile of burgers that have just arrived next to us, and they’re from Gott’s Roadside. How much does one of those cost?
I think it’s $11.
LG: So that’s an $11 burger — which, I’ll say this, in the Bay Area there are more expensive burgers, if you can believe it. But for some families, they go to a drive-through and they can get a full meal for a fraction of that, and that is their motivation. They have to feed their families, so at some point, how do you make something like this even more accessible?
Yeah, that’s an excellent question, and it’s really important to us. From the get-go, we had to have a trajectory to be able to produce meat as uncompromisingly delicious as anything out there at a substantially lower cost than the animal-based technology can do it. And the economics are very tilted in our favor because the way we produce it is so much more resource efficient. We use a quarter of the water, 1/20th the land, 1/8th the greenhouse gas emissions, way less fertilizer and pesticides and stuff like that. That translates into cheaper production cost. When we look at the technology we have today and project it at scale, there’s a clear trajectory to being able to produce this product and basically all the meats that are in our pipeline at prices that are at or below the cost of the cheapest meats on the market.
LG: And what’s the timeline for that? When will that happen?
Probably, let’s just say maybe three years or so. It really depends on reaching a certain scale with production.
KS: Scale with the beef.
Yeah. But we can’t achieve our mission unless we have a product that competes successfully to consumers everywhere that any meat or fish or dairy foods are sold.
KS: So McDonald’s or whatever. Let’s finish up before we get to readers’ questions. Other products? Chicken, steak, fish?
Yeah, we’re working on all of those.
KS: Which one’s closest to finishing?
It’s hard to answer that because our technology platform is kind of meat agnostic. There’s nothing easier about beef flavor than …
KS: Except ground beef’s probably easier than a piece of steak, right?
Yeah, because it doesn’t have anatomy. So from an engineering standpoint, producing things that don’t have anatomies, so to speak, is easier, but producing things that have that preserved anatomy is completely doable, and we’ve done prototypes and so forth. The issue for us — and you kind of hit on it early on — is scaling something to … The scale of just the U.S. ground beef market, it’s a huge scaling challenge, a billion pounds a month of just ground beef. So we’re building up the technology platform, and we have prototypes of all those other products that are under development, but which we release when is really going to depend on when we have the bandwidth and sort of what timing is.
KS: Don’t start on shrimp. That’ll be 20 years, shrimp.
Why is that?
KS: I don’t know. Shrimp seems hard, speaking of anatomy. Unless it’s coconut covered, and then nobody cares what’s in there, let’s be honest. They’ll still eat it.
Actually, one of the interesting things …
LG: Shrimp is surprisingly political.
KS: Coconut shrimp, I’m just telling you, that is a little tip I just gave you.
Coconut shrimp, okay.
KS: Coconut shrimp.
LG: Kara’s coconut shrimp.
Royalties to you from that will be huge.
KS: I’m just saying, no one cares once the coconut is fried on it.
LG: How about “Swisher’s fishless sushi”?
I think one of the things about anatomy, though, here’s something to think about …
KS: Now they’re calling it “anatomy.” I love that.
That’s not necessarily something that is hugely valued by meat lovers. If you’re using cow as your production system, you’ll get along with all …
KS: “Production system.”
That’s what it is.
KS: It is. Yeah, it is.
It’s a technology. I feel like a good analogy is, horses were power transportation 200 years ago. In retrospect, it’s a ridiculous … But people just assume that that was just it.
KS: The only technology system available.
You got whatever the horse could deliver, and that was it. Right now, you’ll get whatever the cow can deliver, and that’s it. And not everybody really likes all the gristle, and you get a recall when there’s bone fragments in your hot dog or whatever.
KS: These cows are inefficient.
They did not evolve to make meat.
KS: These cows.
LG: They’re inefficient.
And they’re just not very good at it.
KS: They’re like old cellphones.
LG: And the whole process of growing to feed them in order for them to produce this is calorically inefficient.
KS: Time to go, cows. Time to move along on the food chain. Anyway, in a minute, we’re going to take some questions about the future of food from our readers and listeners, and Pat is going to answer them. We have a lot. But first, we’re going to take a quick break for a word from our sponsor.
KS: Thank you.
KS: We’re back from a break of eating Impossible Burgers, which are plant-based meat essentially, with Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown. Pat, they were delicious. Lauren is still eating over here.
LG: I’m wrapping up. Because I figure people would not want to hear me chewing on the podcast.
KS: Yes, exactly. Actually, we put them out for some people here at our office.
LG: We did.
KS: And they ran to get them, which is fascinating.
LG: Do you think it tastes like a burger since you eat real burgers?
KS: Yes. Yes, they taste just like it. I just had a bite. It does. It does taste like a burger. I haven’t had it by itself, but I don’t eat burgers by themselves. But I don’t eat a lot of stuff on burgers, but it tastes very close, and it certainly looks like a burger.
Ask Traci to make her tartare.
KS: Yes, her tartare. Yeah, I will. I will. I will. She’s a good friend of mine, Traci Des Jardins who owns Jardinière in San Francisco, and she loves the Impossible people. That’s where I tried the first one, and they’re delicious. They’re quite delicious. The burgers, she cooks a lot of crisp on it, so it feels like … I like that in a burger, which is great. Yeah, I do. I like meat, and I like this. I would have this over anything, but I can’t cook it very well.
Now we’re going to take some questions about this from our readers and listeners. Lauren, you want to read the first question?
LG: Sure. This is from Joe Zulli who asks, “I know this isn’t the point, but how healthy is the Impossible Burger versus beef or turkey? #tooembarrassed”
I think when you ask how healthy it is to someone who’s a scientist, it’s a much more complicated question than it sounds. We have a company policy that’s unbreakable that we’re not going to ever put a product on the market unless we believe it’s healthier for the consumer than what it replaces. That’s an internal thing. Although we don’t market it as being a healthier product, we are committed to making it a healthier product. So it’s got the same protein content. It’s got the same iron content. Actually, higher iron content, and it’s the same form of iron, heme iron, that your body is particularly good at absorbing. Similar calories, slightly lower fat, no cholesterol.
KS: No cholesterol is a critical point.
Yeah. Plants don’t have cholesterol, so you get that one for free. And we’re going to be continuing to make it healthier and healthier. I think maybe one of the most critical things to understand about Impossible Foods is that the advantage that we have that I would say, in my mind, just guarantees our success is that we can continue to improve this now until forever, and the cow is not going to get any better at being meat.
KS: There’s no innovation going on with cows.
No innovation. They’re not even thinking about it. Look at those cows.
KS: They’re getting less innovative.
They’re not deep in thought about how to be delicious. It’s very similar to powered transportation replacing the horse. One of the problems with the horse is it was never going to get any faster, whereas we’re still getting faster with powered transportation and so forth.
KS: Or more efficient.
So one of the things that we’re continually optimizing is the nutritional profile, because first of all, it’s a core value of the company, and secondly, it’s something that consumers care about. So it’s a win-win.
LG: In terms of calories, how many calories would four ounces or eight ounces of this meat have in it?
It’s about the same as a burger made from a cow, but I’m not sure I remember the exact number for that.
KS: And there’s wheat. There’s wheat here, so if you’re gluten-free it’s a problem.
Yeah, it’s got gluten in it, so if you have gluten intolerance, it’s not for you. We’re working on a gluten-free version, but we don’t have it yet.
KS: Gluten-free meatless meat burgers, okay.
LG: So to answer Joe’s question, it seems as though, if you’re just speaking from a purely caloric perspective, that turkey may still be leaner.
KS: But no cholesterol.
LG: Around four ounces [of turkey], if you look it up, it can be anywhere from 115 calories to 150, the numbers vary. But beef, it’s more dense, and it seems like this is along with that.
KS: The cholesterol is a big issue. A lot of people … From animal fat.
LG: Right, but there are other things to health beyond counting calories.
KS: All right. Next one is email from Daniel Freudenberger: “Any plans to sell retail in grocery stores like Whole Foods/Amazon, and when will it be available for home consumption en masse? What do they think about direct-to-consumer plays in food?”
There’s a bunch of questions there.
KS: Getting it yourself, not from restaurants.
First of all, there are definite plans. Again, obviously, if our goal is to be anywhere that meat is sold, that implies that retail, direct-to-consumer and so forth is in the plans. We don’t have the exact timing of that ready to announce. About half of all the ground beef sold and consumed in the U.S. is consumed in restaurants, so that’s more than five billion pounds a year just in restaurants, which again is about 100 times more than we’re going to be producing a year. So there’s still lots of room to expand in restaurants. And from a kind of branding standpoint, there are some advantages there. But I’d say within a few years, for sure you’ll be able to buy our product — maybe products — in grocery stores.
As far as direct-to-consumer, yeah, we’re looking hard at that. I’m not a retail expert, but I would say that it seems reasonably clear that that’s a very expanding area. And it has advantages for us in terms of, we don’t have to worry about where they place our product in the store and …
KS: Anything else or what happens to it. I assume they have the same problems of degradation as meat does. I has a certain shelf life, too, correct?
Yeah. The nominal shelf life of our burger is pretty much identical to ground beef. We have huge advantages in terms of food safety, obviously, because if you wanted to design the least food-safe environment in which to produce food, I think a slaughterhouse would be a pretty good approximation. So we can make it much safer in terms of microbial safety, but what limits the shelf life is just the flavor deteriorates over time, just as it does in meat.
KS: Right. Also, with the home stuff, you’ll have to teach people how to cook it because it’s not as good as chefs doing it — like Traci doing it is different than me cooking it — and you could really … Most people can cook a burger at home pretty easily.
Yeah. Before we have a retail product, we’re going to make sure it is a slam dunk for a home cook to cook it properly.
KS: Right. Yeah, that’s key.
LG: Kara, I like how you’re on a first-name basis with all of San Francisco’s famous chefs, by the way.
KS: Thank you. I am. They’re all lesbians, that’s why. We all know each other.
LG: And there you have it. Kara Swisher, ladies and gentlemen.
KS: And the men are, too.
LG: This has been a great episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask. Just go to the restaurant. Kara will get you in.
KS: Traci’s lovely. I met her many years ago. She’s lovely.
LG: More questions.
KS: In any case …
LG: Next question.
KS: She’s just jealous of my ability to get tables in San Francisco.
LG: I am. Bite me.
LG: Peter Johnstone wants to know, when are they coming to the U.K.?
KS: Or elsewhere globally? They’re just in the U.S., right?
We’re actively working on an international launch plan. It’s still the same sort of scaling issue. It’s such a huge market and huge demand in the U.S. that just scaling to meet that demand is a challenge. But we’re looking hard at international markets, developing potential partners and then introducing a new product into those markets. Depending on the country, there’s regulatory issues you have to go through and so forth. But we’re definitely going to be there.
KS: What’s your biggest market here in this country?
You mean geographically?
It’s actually limited by, it’s where do we have the most stores, so I’d say probably Southern California but possibly Texas.
KS: Oh, you’re going right to the heart, are you?
Oh, yeah, of course. It’s where the meat eaters are.
KS: Those meat guys are mean, I’m telling you.
I’m telling you, given our mission, we want our product wherever the meat eaters live.
KS: Right into Texas.
LG: Right into Texas. I like that, Kara.
Texas is big meat country.
KS: But mostly Austin because they’re really hip in Austin.
LG: It’s a blue city in a red state.
We’re in about 10 restaurants in Texas and maybe about 10 in the L.A. area and then New York and San Francisco, Las Vegas. By the end of the year, we’re going to be in dozens of cities.
KS: Where are all the cows? There’s a lot in California.
Where do the cows live?
KS: Probably California. There’s a lot of cows.
All over. Forty-eight percent, according to the USDA, of the land area of the continental United States is used for animal farming, and the large majority of that is cows.
KS: Has anyone told them this is coming? They’re going to be really disappointed?
KS: Yeah, the cows will be thrilled, except they won’t be.
LG: The cows? They’ll just be hanging out. They’ll be like, “I don’t even have to move.”
KS: Okay, I’m going to stop you right now. Next question.
LG: No, wait, I just had one follow-up question, which is I think you started to say when you thought you’d be overseas by, and I don’t know if we got to that.
KS: He doesn’t have a time.
We don’t have it pinned down. I’d say within a few years for sure. One thing about the USDA, I just want to say they care a lot about farmers and agricultural development, obviously. Again, one of our core missions, and it’s definitely going to happen, is to actually create better jobs in the communities right now that are supporting the meat industry. Baked into our business plan is that we want to create jobs wherever we’re displacing jobs, so I think that the USDA should love us.
KS: Good, Pat, for saying that. I appreciate you for saying that. All right. This was an email from Ann Lundberg: “It was kind of gross to have dripping red juice from a non-meat burger. Would’ve preferred better actual taste than that feel.” Sorry, Ann, there’s a lot of people that don’t agree with you. “Also, the calories are similar to the real burger, and if I remember correctly, it isn’t particularly healthy, not just beef. Just don’t get the upside.” For someone like Ann who’s not convinced by the Impossible Burger, what is the upside? Pat, make your sale here.
If we haven’t won you over yet, Ann, it’s just a matter of time with the flavor. A lot of consumers, the upside is just the eating experience. The whole purpose for doing this was to reduce the environmental footprint of the meat production process. If you ate a quarter-pound Impossible Burger compared to the same burger made from a cow, you reduce your greenhouse gas footprint by the equivalent of 17 miles of driving an average American car, your water footprint by the equivalent of a 10-minute shower, and you free up 75 square feet of land for wildlife restoration. And if you care about it, you slightly fractionally reduce the number of cows being consumed.
When our Oakland facility is in full production, we’re going to save every year the same amount of water that every American — tap or water bottle — consumes in a year. And we’re going to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of taking 80,000 cars off the road and free up a land area that’s about four times the area of Point Reyes.
KS: Ann, get on board.
And we’re going to save a cow from being slaughtered every 16 minutes.
KS: Wow. That’s good enough for me.
So if those things matter to you, those are the reasons.
KS: Otherwise, forget it. Don’t eat it. All right, next one.
LG: Next one is from Geoffrey Woo, and Geoffrey runs, actually … He didn’t write this, he just tweeted it at us, but I know he runs a company that used to be called Nootrobox. Now it’s call HVMN. It’s one of these sort of biohacking kit companies. He asks, “What’s their thinking around cell-cultured meat?”
I think that it’s going to be, for all practical purposes, impossible to scale that process economically, whereas I feel like the motivation for it, I completely applaud. At this point, you’re talking about making something that replicates an animal tissue, and if that were an easy task or remotely economically feasible, it would be happening on a much larger scale with human tissues, and it’s not happening. And when it does happen on any kind of scale, it’s really expensive.
But the other thing, I think there’s a fundamental kind of erroneous assumption in the cultured meat thing. I think it’s basically the same as if you were 200 years ago and you said, “We need a better way to get our cart to move. Let’s make horses out of stem cells.” That would be stupid for any number of reasons, including the fact that now you, once again, you’ve bought into all the limitations of the existing technology. You’re never going to be better than the existing technology.
KS: The horse.
Whereas if you take a completely different approach where you can control the flavor, the texture, the nutritional properties, everything about it, you no longer have the limitations that are built into a cow.
KS: So no better cows. Let’s not make better cows. I wouldn’t mind growing people, though.
All right, next question. Evan Rodgers: “Assuming that beef is bad for the environment, what can or should be done about existing meat subsidies in the United States?” A sacred cow for our politicians, so to speak. The one that doesn’t get killed and eaten by Donald Trump. Anyway. Well done with ketchup.
First of all, I think that realistically, I don’t think much is going to be done about meat subsidies. And from our strategic standpoint, it doesn’t matter, because with those subsidies in place and no advantages to us, we have a clear trajectory to beating cows on cost, as well as flavor and nutrition and so forth.
KS: Even with subsidies.
So this is an entirely market-based, consumer-driven mission. It just falls on us. We have to deliver what consumers care about, and that includes deliciousness, nutrition and affordability. And if we can do that, all the subsidies in the world aren’t going to matter.
LG: And in some ways, you’re subsidized as well, but you’re subsidized by venture capital.
KS: And I don’t mind taking their money. None of us do.
We’re not going to be successful as a business being subsidized by venture capital. We’re being launched by venture capital, but if we aren’t profitable as a business very soon, then none of this will matter. Incidentally about Oakland, we expect to be making a substantial positive gross margin on every burger sold out of the Oakland facility, so relatively soon we’ll be in a position where we can fuel our own growth, not necessarily at the rate we want to go just from revenue from our sales, so we won’t be subsidized by anyone.
LG: Next question is from Sean McVeigh, @MisterMcPet on Twitter. “Are they planning on moving into something beyond a meatless burger? Seems like a pretty narrow niche.”
KS: It’s not narrow.
LG: You talked about that a little bit earlier. We talked about other types of meat.
KS: It’s not narrow. It’s an enormous market. Trillion, so it’s not a narrow niche.
LG: See earlier, Sean, in the podcast, because we did talk a little bit about that just before the jump.
Another question, from Carolynn Choi. “How much does it cost to create one batch and/or one Impossible patty?” That’s a good question.
The detailed information there is confidential right now, but I can give you a kind of a directional answer to it, which is that when we’re producing out of our facility we’re building in Oakland that’ll be up and running any moment now, we will be making a positive margin on every burger we sell. We’ll be selling it to restaurants who will be selling our burger at basically the same price that they’re selling their cow burgers, and they’ll be making money on those sales, too. So I think you can infer from that broadly how much it costs for us to produce a burger. And then I’ll say that basically, we intend within two or three years to be able to produce a burger that will be cost competitive at fast-food restaurants and at mass-market supermarkets and so forth, so pretty much in the same price range as the cheapest ground beef, and we expect to do it profitably.
KS: All right. All right, last question. I’m going to read them together because they’re sort of similar. From Jewell Sparks, who’s from Berlin, and then Abhilash Bingi. “Pat, what are some of the challenges you face as a future food company when you are trying to scale?” And, “The future of my favorite mayo from Hampton Creek seems to be shaky. Will you come out with an eggless mayo product to capture the market?” So talk about first your scale, the challenges you face. And the Hampton Creek has had some challenges as a company, as many have purported. And last, are you going to make mayo?
I think it’s not fruitful for me to kind of compare us directly to Hampton Creek. I think that that company has the same, I would say, nominal goals that we have, and it would be great if they were successful. As far as are we going to make mayo, yeah, we have work under way on pretty much, and our technology was built to enable this, pretty much every category of product we get from animals. If this were a video, I could show you a video of a fried egg basically that we’ve made in the lab.
KS: What? A fried egg?
Yeah. I could show you offline, actually.
KS: All right, okay.
So that’s certainly something within our capabilities. It’s not high on our priority list because there are already very good vegan mayos, so that’s not on our target list. But if it’s necessary to make mayo in order to compete against the chicken-derived egg industry, we could certainly do it.
KS: Does it have to be in that package? I don’t like the package.
No. That’s a very interesting point. This is kind of like what I was saying about anatomy. What you get with meat from a cow, I would just as soon do without the gristle and bone and all that kind of stuff.
KS: All steak.
With eggs, I think if you could get your egg in a little package that you could peel of the top and cook it, it would probably be preferable for a lot of people.
KS: Square. Square eggs.
LG: I don’t know why this sounds so unappealing right now, and I eat eggs, but I’m like, ugh.
Do you like the shell?
KS: No, I don’t like the shell. Who likes the shell? It’s weird.
LG: It depends on what kind of egg you’re talking … Are we talking about soft-boiled eggs? Are we talking about a fried egg?
KS: No, he’s talking about a fried egg.
No, what we’re working on …
LG: But a fried egg wouldn’t come out of a package, would it?
KS: You’d need a package for a fried egg. You need the yolk. It needs to fry in the …
Why not? A chicken egg comes out of a package, it just happens to be a shell made out of calcium carbonate. You could …
KS: It’s calcium carbonate. I knew that. No, I didn’t. Thank you for that. But I’m just saying, it’s a bad package. Yes, a better package for an egg. Square eggs. Why not?
Whatever consumers want.
KS: I would like a square egg, thank you very much.
That’s what we’ll make.
LG: Well, now if you come up with square eggs, you’re going to be paying Kara even more.
KS: There is some pleasure in breaking an egg, though. There’s like … It’s because it’s from when you were a kid. If they stop doing it, nobody’s going to care.
Yeah, I guess that’s probably true.
KS: The next kids wouldn’t care.
Got to do that, too.
LG: So you’re actively working on the fried egg, the fried egg replacement.
KS: The fried egg.
Yes. It’s not something that we’re going to be commercializing in the very near terms because we have other things as well.
KS: He’s making a lobster right now, I know it. There’s a lobster going on in your thing. Is there a lobster? Look, he just smiled.
LG: He just smiled.
KS: I’d get rid of the package of the lobster, too.
LG: That’s the thing about …
KS: What the hell is with the crab, like what’s the grit, the outside?
LG: About fish, too. There are obviously a lot of concerns about greenhouse gases and carbon emissions from the meat on land, but fish or the sustainability of our oceans and the ecosystem is a big concern right now as well.
KS: I don’t like the fish package either.
LG: If you dig into it.
We’re working on fish. Fish is a high priority.
KS: I’ve decided I am with you. I’m against anatomy. I am. Let’s get rid of anatomy but make it look the same.
LG: I have another question for you.
KS: Last question.
LG: Have you ever instructed your employees to go into stores and buy Impossible Burgers in the dozens?
KS: But you just did.
KS: We caught you.
Actually, I didn’t instruct her to do it. That was her own idea.
KS: And it was a good idea, and our staff really enjoyed it. Thank you, Pat. This has been great. So you’ve got this new funding, and you’re just going to keep going.
KS: All right. This is great. We were thrilled to have you at Code, and I’m very thrilled to have you back, and we will have you again to talk about updates of where you’re going. I’m glad you haven’t suffered the fate of Juicera, that’s all my thing. I know, he just made a face. The burgers were delicious, and they’re tastier than ever, and this is a different format I got them in. I had a very famous chef cook it last time, and this is just from a local …
LG: Of course she did.
KS: I’m saying, this is from a burger joint.
LG: What’s the person’s name? What was her name or his name?
KS: Nothing. I know many … I’m not going to go into the famous people I know.
KS: My point is, it was at a burger place versus a big restaurant.
LG: You know, I had a meal by a famous chef recently, too. I’m not going to tell you who. I’m not going to reveal who, but I’ll tell you it was a real tough moment for me. It was very tough in the scale of first-world problems because he came out and he presented a beautiful platter of beef tartare personally to us.
KS: Oh, no.
LG: And I was like …
KS: You should’ve eaten it.
LG: Story for another time.
KS: I had that happen in France once. Someone put rabbit hearts in front of me, a famous chef, and I said, “Absolutely not.”
Anyway, we appreciate you being here. This has been another great episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask. Pat, thank you for joining us and bringing the burgers, too.
Thanks, Kara and Lauren.
LG: Thanks, Pat.