Challenging the food industry giants is no easy feat but, with many consumers equally happy to see their food created by someone in a lab coat as a chef’s apron, fake meat company Impossible Foods believes it is ready.
Investment in the cultivated meat industry (which Impossible Foods is part of) reached $350m for the first time last year, according to the Good Food Institute , a sixfold increase on 2019’s funding figure.
These developments suggest that, while the fake-meat industry is still in the early stages, there is growing appetite for alternatives to meat. A report by Boston Consulting Group and Blue Horizon Corporation claims that Europe and North America will reach “peak meat” consumption by 2025 after which it will start to decline.
Impossible Foods president Dennis Woodside hopes this growth in interest signals a sea change in consumer attitudes towards lab-grown products but he is aware the industry still has a long way to go if it hopes to overtake the $1.2tn meat market.
“Our mission is to transform the global food system by displacing demand for conventional animal products, meaning our product is directly competing against conventional meat,” he says. “And that market is enormous.”
The former Dropbox COO and Google senior vice-president joined the company in March 2019 to take on the newly-created position of president. Within the role, Woodside oversees Impossible Foods’ operations, manufacturing, supply chain, sales, marketing and HR functions.
The current CEO and founder Patrick Browne has been described as running the business like a science lab, but Woodside sees no conflict of interest between balancing the company’s scientific roots and its business ambitions. He says: “Our team took a very scientific approach to recreating the experience of eating meat, using just plant-based ingredients. It’s the science behind the Impossible Burger that makes it so commercially successful.”
One of the first challenges Woodside was faced with when entering the role, was meeting a surge in demand following a string of partnerships with fast-food restaurants, including White Castle, Burger King. The deals, which saw the Impossible Burger 2.0 appear on the menus of 9,000 restaurants, helped boost revenues by 50% over the first six months of 2019. However, the plant-based burger makers struggled to keep up with demand.
Many customers claimed that the meat-free burger had become impossible to find. Woodside explains: “We faced a massive acceleration in demand in early 2019 after the launch of the Impossible Whopper at Burger King. Demand skyrocketed across all markets and customers.”
A strategic partnership with food manufacturing company OSI Group was key to meeting this soaring demand. He adds: “As one of the largest food producers in the world, OSI added short-term capacity to Impossible Foods’ plant in Oakland, California and has continued to expand production of Impossible Foods’ flagship product over the last few years.”
Taking on the meat market
Impossible Foods’ aim to disrupt the meat market has been met with some resistance. The US Center for Food Safety has recently challenged the Food and Drug Administration’s decision to approve the genetically engineered soy protein heme, which makes Impossible’s plant burgers appear to “bleed”.
Commenting on the challenge, Woodside says: “Big Beef has rolled out a multifaceted communications campaign to spread fear and doubt about Impossible products. We’ve anticipated this type of backlash since the company began back in 2011.”
He remains convinced that “consumers will make the right choice” when it comes to selecting a product which claims to be better for the environment. And it’s an aspect of the company’s strategy that Woodside is keen to stress.
“Exploiting animals for food is by far the most profound contributor to global warming, “ he says. “We don’t target or market to people who are vegans or vegetarians; only about 3% of people worldwide are vegans or vegetarians, and they’re already doing the right thing by eliminating livestock-related products.
“Rather, Impossible Foods competes squarely against the livestock industry. The only consumer we care about is the meat-loving omnivore.”
This objective is one of the reasons why the company pursued partnerships with fast food chains and is also why Impossible Foods is now turning its attention to the Asian market.
“Asia has some of the world’s most discerning foodies and chefs, and it’s a global bellwether for cultural and food trends,” Woodside says. “More importantly, we want to make Impossible Foods’ products available in the region where meat consumption is 44% of the world’s demand and where demand for meat is growing faster than anywhere else on the planet.”
Documentaries, such as the Netflix hit Seaspiracy, have helped to bring wider attention to the environmental issues caused by commercial farming. Although some of the people quoted in the documentary have accused the filmmakers of misrepresentation, Woodside believes media can play an important role in raising awareness.
“The more consumer education there is and the stronger the awareness around the plate-to-planet connection and the dangers of the animal agriculture industry, the better,” he says.
But while consumer opinion is changing, gaining approval from food regulation agencies continues to be a challenge for Impossible Foods. Earlier this year, the company appointed former EU climate chief Christiana Figueres to its board of directors in a bid to get approval from EU regulators.
Once again, its specially designed ingredient heme is proving a stumbling block. The European Food Safety Authority remains cautious about granting approval to the ingredient as it is obtained through a process which involves genetically-modified yeast.
Woodside says that Impossible Foods filed paperwork with the Italy-based authority in 2019 and remains optimistic that it will “exceed all food-safety regulations”. With a public offering being mooted for later this year, it could be an important few months for the Impossible Foods president.