Interview with Esther Cohn, the Communications Manager of Impossible Foods
How did the story of Impossible Foods begin?
Impossible was founded about ten years ago by Patrick Brown. He is our CEO, and he was a long-time academic. He had a really accomplished career in the fields of biochemical research, and he was thinking about how he could best apply his skills to solve the world’s most urgent problems. From his perspective, that problem was climate change and the loss of global biodiversity. So he looked at what the causes of climate change and biodiversity loss were and identified that the meat industry, the animal-based agricultural system was the single largest contributor to the global decline of biodiversity and climate change.
He ultimately set out to create and build a product that satisfied meat-eaters in all the characteristics they care about in the product they love and consume daily. I am also a meat-eater, and I love the way it tastes. I set out to eat a burger once a month, even before Impossible Foods.
I knew about the challenges of animal agriculture from an animal welfare perspective first and foremost. Still, beyond that, especially once I got to Impossible Foods, I understood that the real threats in animal agriculture were the climate effects and the fact that it is incredibly resource-intensive.
The hypothesis was that humans, as much as they love meat, for the most part, don’t love that it comes from animals. They love all these other characteristics about it that it is juicy, delicious, savory, filling, and protein-filled. But they don’t love that it comes from an animal. They sort of moved past that in order to get to the product that they love.
Pat theorized that if you can take those same characteristics and build the product from plants that tastes just as good, it’s just as affordable, available, and is indistinguishable from a pure kind of taste-based consumer experience perspective, people will choose that product instead. They don’t love that it comes from animals; we just kind of moved past that to get to the product. And if you can create the exact same product with all the same features from plants, people will choose that instead. So that is what he set out to do with Impossible Burger.
What was unique about the start? What was the solution to be discovered?
For the first five years, the company was just entirely scientists. We had no sales, no marketing, no communications; it was just scientists, and they spent a long time looking at meat at a molecular level to try and understand what it was that made meat taste like meat. Ultimately they determined that it came down to one molecule called “heme,” which is in all plants and animals. It is short for hemoglobin which we have in our blood. The heme that we use in Impossible Burger is Soy leghemoglobin. It is in the root nodules of soy plants, and in order to produce that at the scale, we use a fermentation method to grow that soy hemoglobin and make it less resource-intensive.
How did Patrick define the mission of Impossible Foods?
The company’s mission is ultimately to displace demand for animal meat and animal-based products and offer plant-based versions for those products instead. So the Impossible Burger is a beef analog. It is meant to displace demand for beef from cows. And essentially, our mission is to have people start consuming more plant-based meat instead with the hope that, ultimately, we completely replace the animal food system with the plant-based system.
How many people are working at Impossible Foods?
We have about 750 full-time employees.
Are most of the employees of Impossible Foods already on a vegan diet, or are people changing their habits as a result of working for Impossible Foods?
The premise of Impossible Foods is not to convince everyone to become vegans or vegetarians. We are using the term “plant-based” because we think it is first of all more appealing to a wider population of people. Studies have shown that if you stick vegan on an otherwise vegetarian or plant-based dish, it sells less. People don’t like it, and it does not sound good because people have set negative connotations around the terms “vegan” and “vegetarian” based on the products of the past that frankly weren’t that delicious. So that is why we stick with the term “plant-based.”
I don’t think we actually track numbers of how employees identify as meat-eaters. I eat meat from animals pretty regularly. I don’t eat beef anymore because now we have the Impossible Burger, and it is just as good, but I still eat chicken, and until we come out with Impossible Chicken, I will probably still eat it.
Everyone at the company shares the mission of Impossible Foods, which is to displace and ultimately reduce the demand for animal agriculture and for animal-based food. We have lots of testing being done in the company lab, where we’re comparing our product to the animal-based version, and you need to be able to taste test both of them to make sure that you know we’re making a product that’s just as delicious. So you know, people have to eat meat to some extent in order to test the products.
What’s your opinion about the current meat production processes around the globe?
In the context of our mission, it’s certainly a really resource-intensive system. The cow, for example, has about a 3% efficiency at turning plant-based protein into protein that animals or humans consume. So when a cow eats, 97% of the protein is lost in the production or the life cycle of a cow.
A cow was not designed to be eaten by humans. It does all these other things that cows do. And certainly, the kind of meat industry has done a really good job of making cows as efficient as they could possibly be. We have these massive farms, where they are kept in really small amounts of land. They’re fed a tonne of soy and wheat. They are not even fed grass. We’ve made the system as technically efficient as it could be. But ultimately, we’re still stuck inside this system that relies on this extremely inefficient technology if we want to think about the cow this way to transform plants into meat that humans consume.
Back in the day, there were a horse and buggies, and that’s how we got around. That’s how we delivered our mail. That’s how we traveled. That’s how we delivered our food. If you had asked someone back, “what would you like for the future of transportation” they would have said, “oh, I want a faster horse,” they would have had no concept of there being a different technology for transportation.
This is sort of how we think about the way we’re stuck now. We’re relying on these animal technologies to make our plants into the meat when in reality, we could bypass that entirely and make it directly from plant-based ingredients and have the same features that people love about the product. So from our perspective, you know, we’d love to see a future agriculture system that doesn’t rely on animals at all.
What specific products do you currently have that are out in the market?
Yep, so we have Impossible Beef or Impossible Burger – we call it Impossible Beef in Asia and Impossible Burger in the US. We have Impossible Sausage, which is currently available at around 30,000 restaurants in the US, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
And then we have Impossible Pork, which we’ve teased a little bit but has not commercially rolled out yet.
Are you planning to enter European markets as well?
Absolutely, yeah. It’s certainly part of our long-term goal. We have an application right now with the government governing body that regulates food sales based in Farma, Italy. We are essentially waiting to gain approval from regulatory bodies and then be there as soon as we can.
What is your roll-out strategy? Do you have the initial target countries in mind?
I would not say that we have a target country. At this point in time, we’ve not really identified a rollout strategy yet, publicly, but certainly, our long-term goal is to be everywhere. And as with most of our strategies, we typically will target high meat-eating countries first because those are the populations that are going to be really impactful towards achieving our mission.
How can plant-based alternatives be popularised? What are the things that have failed? And what are the things that work?
It’s a great question. So you know, I think we’re quite familiar with the idea of plant-based alternatives. Soy-based products, like tofu, have been around forever, and more modern creations, like black bean and corn-type veggie burgers. Those have been around for a fairly long time. They might be an alternative, but they’re not meant to be a replacement. You can’t cook them in Bolognese, the way that you can cook conventional beef. They might be good in their own right to some extent, some of them are good, and some of them are not so good. But they aren’t considered to be replications of the animal-based product.
From our perspective, we see ourselves as leaders in this space of creating this idea of plant-based products that actually taste like the “real thing.” There are certainly others who are doing a pretty good job of creating products that compete directly with the animal version regarding taste, functionality, and craveability. And all these characteristics matter to meat-loving consumers. About 90 to 95% of our customers identify as meat-eaters, so we are not targeting the vegan or vegetarian population. We aren’t trying to steal a customer from another plant-based product. We want to win over a customer who eats meat on a regular basis. That’s how we achieve our mission. If we steal a customer from another plant-based company, that doesn’t help us achieve our mission because they were already eating a plant-based diet. If they love other plant-based products, if they love tofu and kale salads, and they don’t eat meat at all, we would be happy if they kept doing that – we have no interest in getting bigger for the sake of getting bigger. We want to target consumers that will help us achieve our mission.
Who are your competitors? And how do you view them?
That’s another good question. So we really think of our competitors as the meat industry, the huge meat producers of the world, the Titans that produce animal-based meat. These are the companies that we want to take demand from. We have no interest in competing against other plant-based products. Those companies share our mission, and any company that’s trying to make delicious plant-based products that compete against the incumbent industry, that’s a company that we consider allies in kind of this ambitious mission that we have.
How do you differentiate yourself from similar companies?
Some of the plant-based products of the past frankly weren’t good enough to be compared against animal versions. While we ultimately share their mission to reduce consumption of animal-based products, we do want to make sure that people know that what we’re doing is different.
We are making a product that’s designed for meat-eaters for meat lovers. That’s how we see ourselves as kind of standing out. Our magic ingredient, “heme,” is what makes our meat tastes like meat. Heme is present in chicken; it is present in higher quantities in beef, which is why beef has a darker color. And when it’s raw, our product has those same qualities as beef because we’ve taken this core ingredient.
I’ve been at conferences where a vegetarian person has told me, “I haven’t eaten meat in 15 years, and your product looks too much like animal meat”. They see it raw, they see it cooked, and it looks exactly like meat. It tastes like meat; it has that kind of, you know, an unmistakable meatiness to it and a bloodiness to some extent. Consumers who haven’t had meat for 20 years don’t want that product. For us, that’s a sort of a proof point, that we’re making a product that’s different from plant-based products in the past.
If you have conducted research regarding your products recently, what are the current opinions of customers? What are some of the negative and positive feedback?
That’s also a good question. While we’re developing new products in the lab, we’re also still working to improve the taste and texture, and nutritional profile of our existing products. Of course, while we see our product as ultimately healthier than what we’re trying to replace – it has no cholesterol, it has lower fat, the same amount of protein – there’s certainly space for improvement regarding the nutritional profile of our product, now and in the future.
We also want to make sure each product that we produce is as sustainable as it can possibly be, that we’re sourcing from sustainable sources and that we are building a product that’s easily manufacturable. Our products shouldn’t have a really complicated manufacturing process to make it easier to scale as we grow.
The biggest one that we talk about all the time is lowering the cost of our product. Right now, Impossible Burger or any of our products are priced around what you might pay for, an organic or grass-fed beef. They’re more expensive than the kind of conventional non-organic beef, which is, again, only because of these efficiencies that have been pushed in the industrial agriculture system. And, to some extent, government subsidies allow the final cost to be lower for the consumer, which was the case, especially during COVID.
There’s been a spotlight shone on what the working conditions of these slaughterhouse facilities and meat processing plants are. I think it’s become clear to many people that the reason that these systems are so “efficient” is that they have unsafe working conditions, they pay their workers very poorly. All these are due to a system that is forcing the cost to be lower for the end-consumer.
From our perspective, as we scale and continue to displace demand for conventional meat, the powers that have structured this kind of this industrial animal-based system are going to start to recognize that demand is shifting towards plant-based, and then we will start to receive some of those same benefits. We want to make sure we’re creating really well-paying jobs and safe working environments. To the extent that we can, we want to bring the cost down for the consumer; that’s certainly a part of our goal.
We have witnessed that COVID-19 disrupted the whole supply chain in the animal-based meat industry…
The COVID pandemic itself was caused by eating animals. We can see that nearly every pandemic in human history was caused by animals being consumed by humans. I think that’s another piece of it that started to become more part of the public consciousness and understanding. It is not just the environmental impacts of the animal-based agriculture system, but the kind of social and global health impacts of that system.
How did COVID-19 impact your business?
It certainly impacted our business. At the beginning of the pandemic, in February and March 2020, we were sold in about 150 grocery stores and about 17,000 restaurants. Today, we’re sold in the same amount of restaurants, but in about 20,000 grocery stores. So we’ve massively increased our retail presence in the last year, which was all sort of part of the plan.
We initially launched grocery in September of 2019. And 2020 was meant to be the year of retail growth. But because food service slowed down so much, and consumers were driving much more heavily into retail and grocery stores, we definitely increased our retail expansion plans and made sure that we did that really quickly because there was an increased need. You probably remember, at the start of the pandemic, there were a lot of conventional meat shortages for the same reason: plants were having to shut down because of COVID outbreaks, and supply chains were disrupted. The price of conventional meat went up, and it also became less and less available. Some stores were limiting the amount of meat that consumers can buy.
That certainly created an enormous boom in kind of plant-based sales, and we did our best to fulfill that demand by expanding our retail footprint as much as we could.
It was a big year for plant-based products, I think across the board.
There is the idea of the plate to Planet connection, which is the kind of consumer understanding of the impact of their food and buying decisions on their kind of personal environmental footprint. So I think the average person understands at least tangentially, for example, that if they buy a Prius or an electric vehicle, their personal environmental footprint will be lowered. But most people don’t know that the biggest way to lower their personal environmental footprint is to switch to a plant-based diet or even to reduce the amount of animal-based products that they consume. The awareness of that is actually super low; at least in the US, it’s around 30%.
From our perspective, the more that we can increase that awareness and the pandemic has, I think, made a really big impact on people’s awareness and how their food buying decisions and how the food system impacts their health and the environment. The pandemic has definitely shone a light for a lot of consumers on what that system looks like and how fragile it is.
What is the current market potential? When do you think you would actually see a drastic change in customers’ behavior and the dominance of plant-based meat on the market?
We want to completely remove animals from the food system by 2035, which we understand is an incredibly ambitious goal. Ultimately, we see that is the time frame that we need to achieve our mission in order to turn back the clock on climate change, and really, to save our species. We’re in the middle of an extinction crisis, and we’re losing species at a really rapid rate. From our perspective, the quicker we can displace demand for animal agriculture, the better.