The Impossible Burger debate is ugly and needs to end
So, Burger King has released the Impossible Whopper, featuring the most controversial meat-free burger on the planet, and the vegan community has never been more polarized. Truth be told, I actually wasn’t planning on writing about it. The Impossible Burger has been on the market since 2016 and widely available since last year and we’ve debated it ad infinitum already. But over the last few days the debate has just gotten uglier and uglier and I see the damage it’s doing to the vegan community and it needs to end. So, I’m going to assess both sides of the debate, and then I’m going to present an actual solution.
In case you’re wondering why I’m calling the debate ugly, it’s because social media is overflowing with posts like this:
“Tried the VEGAN Impossible Whopper today! No mayo of course. 🙂 Glad to see vegan options becoming more mainstream! And for every less than favorable comment I get on this post from a holier-than-thou vegan, I’m going to make a donation to a zoo in their honor! I’m sure they like zoos as much as the Impossible Whopper. 😉”
Regardless of which side you’re on, you can see that this is ugly, right? If you’ve been vegan for any reasonable amount of time you’ve probably had at least one discussion with a meat eater where the meat eater got so petty that they said they were going to eat more animals just to spite you. It’s the ugliest tactic in the book. And now we have people who identify as vegans using a variation of this tactic on other vegans while being cheered on by people who also identify as vegans. This post got dozens of likes and heart reacts in less than an hour.
The fact that the person who wrote it felt comfortable posting it in a vegan group and got lots of support for their post is as clear a sign as we’re going to get that this debate is long past the point of being productive. And the ugliness is coming from both sides. As a direct result of this debate, people are taking mental health breaks from social media, people are getting unfriended, and people are getting blocked. We are now undeniably in community destroying territory and we need to stop.
So, let’s assess the debate, starting with the question of whether the Impossible Burger is vegan or not. And just to be clear, I’m aware that some of you subscribe to the argument that even if it’s not vegan it might still be in the animals’ best interest to support it. That’s a separate argument which we will assess as well, but first we need to establish if it’s vegan or not. To that end, I’m going to recap what happened at Impossible Foods in six paragraphs:
In terms of ingredients, the Impossible Burger itself is 100 percent plant-based. There are no animal-derived ingredients in the burger whatsoever. The discussion about whether it’s vegan or not is not based on the ingredients themselves, but on the testing of one of the ingredients: soy leghemoglobin, to be precise. This is the ingredient that sets the Impossible Burger apart from other plant-based burgers, as soy leghemoglobin turns into heme when heated. Meat contains lots of heme and that gives it a characteristic flavor. So, by adding soy leghemoglobin to a plant-based burger, Impossible Foods has created a burger that tastes more like meat.
Because Impossible Foods was the first company that isolated this ingredient and added it to a product in large quantities, they wanted everyone to know it was safe. So, they submitted extensive data (which did not include any tests on animals) to food safety experts of three universities. The experts unanimously concluded that it was “generally recognized as safe,” GRAS for short. At that point the company was already legally allowed to sell and market the product wherever they wanted, and now they also had experts from three universities backing them up in case anyone would ever question the safety of their product. There was no need and no legal requirement for further testing.
The story could have ended there, but Impossible Foods wanted to take it one step further. So, in their own words: “We voluntarily decided to take the optional step of providing our data, including the unanimous conclusion of the food-safety experts, to the FDA via the FDA’s GRAS Notification process.” [Emphasis added]
In order to complete this optional process, the FDA asked them to run some additional tests. In light of that, Impossible Foods contacted PETA to ask them how to hire a laboratory to conduct tests on animals. PETA told them which laboratories were the least cruel, but they also informed them that they had scientists who helped companies avoid animal testing altogether. One of their scientists offered to meet with Impossible Foods to recommend non-animal tests. Initially, Impossible Foods responded positively to that proposal, but then they stopped responding. So, the meeting never happened.
PETA assumed that Impossible Foods wouldn’t test, as they had not been in touch. But, in reality, Impossible Foods had chosen to conduct a test on rats. Despite this test, however, the FDA still didn’t want to put soy leghemoglobin on their list. Which, again, was not in any way required to sell the product anywhere. They were already selling it. When PETA found out Impossible Foods had tested on rats, they immediately contacted Impossible Foods again. They explained that further animal testing could be avoided and offered again to have their scientists help them. Impossible Foods turned their offer down. They continued to test on rats until the FDA finally agreed to put soy leghemoglobin on their list.
In total, Impossible Foods tested soy leghemoglobin on 188 rats. This means they fed them the ingredient, some in massive amounts, then they killed them, and then they cut up their bodies and examined them. As they already knew, the ingredient was completely safe, but that didn’t stop them from voluntarily inflicting suffering and death on those 188 rats.
If you have any doubts about the accuracy of this account, I invite you to confirm it yourself by reading the letter published by the CEO and founder of Impossible Foods on their own website and by watching the video put out by the senior vice president of PETA, published on PETA’s YouTube Channel. Their stories are completely in line with each other, they’re just told from different perspectives and provide different details.
Update: The letter was removed from the Impossible Foods website a month after I published this article. I’ve changed the link to an archived version of it from April 2019, hosted by archive.org. If Impossible Foods made any changes to the letter between April and August, those changes will not be visible.
Vegan or plant-based?
So, is the Impossible Burger a vegan burger? Well, let’s look at the definition of veganism set forward by the Vegan Society: “Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.”
Based on that definition, a product tested on animals is by default not vegan. Now, you might point to the “possible and practicable” part of the definition and say that there are exceptions. Which raises two questions: Was it possible and practicable for Impossible Foods to avoid animal testing? Yes, it certainly was. And is it possible and practicable for us to avoid buying and eating the Impossible Burger? Also yes.
You might also argue that animal testing can be forgiven if it was a long time ago and won’t happen again. But this was not a long time ago. This was last year. That’s when the research paper was published and that’s when the FDA put soy leghemoglobin on their list. And there is absolutely no reason to assume that Impossible Foods won’t test on animals again. Their past actions don’t indicate that, given that they insisted on testing on animals despite there being no legal requirement and PETA informing them that they could achieve their goal without animal testing. And their current actions don’t indicate that either, given that they still don’t consider these animal tests a mistake and they actually leave the door open for more animal testing in the future.
So, as unfortunate as it is, the answer is no. The Impossible Burger is not a vegan burger. Not even by the most lenient standards. I wish it was different too, but we can’t just ignore the definition of veganism when assessing if a product is vegan. The Impossible Burger is a plant-based burger, not a vegan burger. And I understand that you might still think this burger will completely change the game and do much more good than harm. That might still be an accurate prediction. But that prediction is separate from whether it’s vegan or not, and if you want to convince others that your prediction is accurate you should use accurate language. So, if you support the Impossible Burger, then this is the moment I ask you to at least stop referring to it as a vegan burger and start calling it a plant-based burger. Because that’s what it is.
We’re not enemies
Calling the burger what it is is the first and most important step in taking the pressure off the debate. The second step is to remember that no matter how petty people on the other side may be acting, they’re not actually our enemies. The irony of this whole debate is that we actually have the exact same goal, a world free of animal exploitation, but we’re so fixated on our own view of how to get there that we become blind to the fact that those on the other side are trying to get there too. So, I’m going to address both sides separately here. I’m going to explain the perspective of the other side, and I’m asking you to make a genuine attempt to understand them:
To those in favor
You’re looking at society and you see progress, fast-food chains like Burger King are finally introducing plant-based alternatives to meat and you’re excited about that. Those on the other side, however, are looking at the vegan community and they see regression. They thought you agreed with them that animal testing is cruel and indefensible and that Burger King is one of the most immoral companies on the planet. So now that those two bad things have been combined, the company that was already immoral is also selling a product tested on animals, they don’t understand why you’re excited about that. And they definitely don’t understand why you buy it yourself, why you call it vegan, and why you flaunt it on social media.
They point out that innocent animals were needlessly killed for this burger and they’re met with the same hostility as when they point out to meat eaters that innocent animals were needlessly killed for their burgers. Only this time it’s coming from people they thought were on the same side, and that’s disheartening to them. And you’re not doing them justice by calling them holier-than-thou purists. All they’re trying to do is stand up for the animals and prevent animal testing from being considered acceptable by the vegan community.
They want to see that you care as well, about the animals that were needlessly killed and about the principles that veganism is built on. That’s why it’s so important to refrain from calling it a vegan burger. By calling it vegan you are basically saying that the 188 innocent animals that were needlessly killed for this burger do not count, at all. By calling it plant-based you acknowledge that those animals existed and you signal to other companies that they can’t test on animals and still get the vegan label. It’s a small ask, given that it’s actually accurate and that it means a lot to your fellow vegans, while the average non-vegan doesn’t even notice if you call it vegan or plant-based.
They also have a bigger ask, although not nearly as big as it’s made out to be, and that’s to not buy the burger and to not promote it to non-vegans. The entire vegan community consists of people who went vegan without ever eating this burger and most of us have been enjoying plenty of good vegan burgers, it is perfectly possible to recommend those burgers to non-vegans instead of the Impossible Burger.
To those against
While you’re focused on the 188 animals who have been killed, the people on the other side are trying to use this burger to prevent more unnecessary deaths. None of them wanted those rats to die, but they had no say in it and they can’t undo it. And they also don’t support the cruelty Burger King inflicts on animals on a daily basis, but they have no say in that either. They’re just confronted with the current reality that one of the most popular fast-food chains in the world is now offering a burger, for which no further animals will be killed (if ordered without mayo), that tastes almost indistinguishable from meat, and they consider that an opportunity.
They accept that the past can’t be changed, they accept that every day millions of people visit Burger King, and they try to work with that reality. All those millions of people need to stop eating animal products, and they think they can convince more of those people to do so by focusing their attention on a plant-based burger that tastes almost identical to what they’re already eating, at the same venue that they already visit, than by telling them to go to a completely different venue to eat a completely different burger.
The ones who not only recommend the burger to meat eaters, but also eat it themselves, do so because they genuinely think that normalizing this innovation will help to get the world to stop eating meat. They want to encourage Burger King and other fast-food chains to keep adding animal-free alternatives to their menus that will eventually replace the animal products, and they want to show the world that you can give up animal products without having to sacrifice anything. That’s why they have such a hard time accepting that it’s not vegan, because they really want to say to meat eaters: I’m vegan and I can even eat a Whopper at Burger King, so what’s your excuse not to go vegan?
You’re not doing them justice by saying they sold out for a burger and gave up their morals for gluttony. These people avoid animal products, products tested on animals, and every other form of animal exploitation in every other part of their lives. And some of them are dedicated animal rights activists who have turned many people vegan. The reason they’re embracing the Impossible Burger is not because they’re suddenly ruled by their taste buds. It’s because they genuinely think that, given that no more animals will die for it, it is in the best interest of the animals to embrace it.
I hope that helped you to understand those on the other side a bit better, even though you probably still disagree with them. Now, let’s talk about the solution. You might expect me to tell you which side I think is right, but I’m not going to. I’m not going to because I’m not trying to win this debate. I’m trying to end it. And the only way we can end it is if we collectively acknowledge that we can’t afford to waste any more time on it.
We’ve been debating for a year and we’re not even close to agreeing with each other. And who knows, maybe if we debate it for another year, we will agree. Honestly, if we didn’t have bigger problems, I would be all for that. But we do have bigger problems. Much bigger problems. We live in a world with over seven billion people who think it’s okay to kill and eat animals. Together, they kill over a billion land animals every week and over a billion aquatic animals every day. That is the main problem we need to solve. And the simple fact is that arguing amongst ourselves about the Impossible Burger is doing next to nothing to solve that.
So, the solution I propose is very simple: Anytime you feel tempted to discuss the Impossible Burger with someone who doesn’t consume any animal products, stop yourself, and then reach out to a meat eater instead. Talk to them about veganism. That’s what will help the animals most.