Government Won’t Say Whether High-Tech Veggie Burgers Are Safe or Not

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Probably fine? Photo: Courtesy of Impossible Foods

The now-famous “bleeding” veggie burger made by Bay Area start-up Impossible Foods has plenty of fans. Bill Gates is an investor. David Chang and other big-name chefs serve it at their restaurants. It’s also due in supermarkets soon, which will help it compete with rival Beyond Meat, whose own high-tech veggie burger is already on shelves at Whole Foods and Kroger. But as much as the Impossible Burger seems to be ages ahead of other meat alternatives, the company is learning that disruption doesn’t always happen quickly. And currently, the company can’t get the Feds to say whether they think an ingredient in the burger is completely safe to eat.

A New York Times story today suggests that the federal bureaucracy is moving more slowly than the company would like in saying its ingredients are completely safe for consumption. Impossible Foods claims it’s already conducted “extensive safety testing” that proves their burger presents no dangers as a food — an important thing to do! — but it seems officials at the FDA still need some convincing. Per the Times:

Impossible Foods wants the Food and Drug Administration to confirm that the ingredient is safe to eat. But the agency has expressed concern that it has never been consumed by humans and may be an allergen …

“F.D.A. believes the arguments presented, individually and collectively, do not establish the safety of soy leghemoglobin for consumption,” agency officials wrote in a memo they prepared for a phone conversation with the company on Aug. 3, 2015, “nor do they point to a general recognition of safety.”

At issue is leghemoglobin, what Impossible Foods calls the burger’s “secret sauce.” It comes from the root nodules of soybean plants, and it’s the secret to the patties’ deceptively beeflike aroma. It’s also never been a food before. Impossible Foods argues that it stuffed rats with an obscene amount of leghemoglobin “well above” what’s in their burger, and the creatures were fine. But the FDA remains skeptical and wants the company to demonstrate that the 40-some-odd proteins in it are “safe specifically for humans.” Impossible Foods could say no and keep selling the burger anyway, but the FDA always reserves the power to “take appropriate action to protect public health” if it doubts a food’s safety.

Impossible Foods dashed out a press release of its own this morning (“Expert Panel Unanimously Reaffirms the Safety of Key Ingredient” was part of the headline), but the company says it “respects” the FDA’s role nonetheless. A rep also tells the Times they’re “taking extra steps to provide additional data to the FDA beyond what’s required.”

FDA Won’t Say If ‘Bleeding’ Veggie Burgers Are Safe or Not