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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Impossible eyes UK launch

The maker of America’s most famous plant-based burger is eager to gain a foothold in the UK’s rapidly growing meat free market, writes Eamonn Duff

Is 2022 the year that plant-based meat brand Impossible Foods finally reaches UK shores?

It could well be the case with the California based company having confirmed it is midway through a bid to launch its growing product portfolio in Britain.

“Post-Brexit, in early 2021, we submitted an application for approval with the UK Food Standards Agency,” an Impossible Foods spokesperson confirmed to FMCG CEO.

The UK development is significant in that it comes after separate paperwork was filed, in 2019, for E.U approval. More than two years on, however, the European Food Safety Authority is still deliberating over Impossible’s magic ingredient: an iron-rich molecule called ‘heme’ that makes its burgers “bleed” and taste meaty. Heme, by definition, is a genetically modified organism (GMO) that’s generally banned in the E.U without special clearance.

“We are currently working through the regulatory process in these markets,” the Impossible spokesperson added. “We’re in several regions worldwide, and we respect the regulatory process. Across every market that has completed our regulatory review, we’ve never been rejected.”

In 2011, Biochemistry Professor Pat Brown (pictured below) launched Impossible Foods during a sabbatical from Stanford University. Bringing together a team of scientists to recreate the entire sensory experience of eating meat – using plants, the company went on to launch its first offering in 2016, the ‘bleeding’ Impossible Burger. Today, Impossible products are present in more than 22,000 grocery stores and 40,000 restaurants around the world. Brown’s plant based dream is now worth billions. More importantly to him, he’s at the forefront of shifting consumer attitudes towards lab-grown products and is offering products that are genuinely competing against conventional meat.

And, with an ongoing mission to infiltrate every major market globally where traditional meat from animals is sold, it’s been another huge year of triumphs.

Since September 2020, Impossible has been approved in Canada, the United Arab Emirates and most recently, two countries that are home to some of the most ardent meat-eaters on earth, Australia and New Zealand.

In late November, Brown’s international crusade was further boosted by the completion of a $500 million funding round, taking lifetime funding beyond $2 billion.

However, with lingering scepticism around GMOs, hurdles still remain. Aside from Europe, Impossible has yet to crack China which produces 55 million metric tons of pork, for dinner plates, every year.

Speaking to Fortune at the recent COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Brown said: “Welcoming us in is the biggest thing [China] can do to improve their food security.”

Impossible is already able to sell its substitute beef and pork in Hong Kong.  And Brown argues, if his company could access mainland China, it would make the world’s largest pork consumer less dependent on imports and offer new ways to feed the nation its favourite foods without destroying the planet along the way.

To date, China has blocked Impossible products over its key ingredient – but Brown believes it’s only a matter of time before any issues are ironed out.

“China, right now, has no regulatory process for us to go through, literally because our products are new enough that they haven’t created a regulatory process,” he said. “So that’s kind of the main thing that holds us up.”

When Brown began his journey 10 years ago, his ultimate goal was to eliminate the farming industry and along with it, the related emissions and environmental impacts.

To achieve this, his products must not only rival the real thing for taste, nutrition and availability, but cost.

The Impossible Foods founder says the day is fast approaching when his products will be on a price parity with real meat. He believes the company’s core beef product would already have reached that milestone by now if not for distribution costs that are higher than the bulk wholesale options available to butchers.

“It’s completely doable,” he said. “It’s just primarily a matter of scaling. And also taking more control of the process ourselves.”

While the company continues to find itself tangled in regulatory red tape, it is nevertheless losing valuable ground to a growing field of popular fake meat brands.

Here in Britain, which is widely considered the largest market for plant-based alternatives in Europe, Impossible’s US rival Beyond Meat has already established a solid footprint alongside a growing list of established local brands like Richmond (below), Meatless Farm and This.

Elsewhere, Nestlé has been investing tens of millions in protein projects and the development of proprietary technologies for plant-based meat alternatives. And, with many high street fast food chains also now offering their own meat alternatives – including McDonald’s with its recently unveiled McPlant (co-developed with Beyond Meat), it’s pretty clear: Impossible’s task is going to be all the more difficult, the longer it sits on the sidelines.

If recent remarks from its chief legal officer Dana Wagner are any indication, the company is hoping the doors to a post-Brexit Britain will be easier to open, now Europe is no longer an influence.

“The UK has said a lot of very positive things about being open for business, about wanting to be an innovation powerhouse, about being aware of climate change issues and wanting to lead on that,” said Wagner.

“We think we’re very consistent with all those agendas and hopefully it’ll be sooner rather than later, but that’s up to the regulator.”

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