A queue of 20-somethings is forming on a side-street in London’s Covent Garden, lured by adverts on Instagram promising free food. Inside the building, the bustling chefs of Maison Bab serve their standard fare from an open-plan, exposed-steel kitchen – and downstairs in the basement, an “Impossible chicken paradise and sausage palace” awaits.
The latter may look like a moodily-lit DJ set, but it is in fact the UK launch of Impossible Foods, an American company selling processed meat alternatives.
The brand is famous for its flagship ingredient – soy leghemoglobin, or “heme”, produced by genetically modifying yeast – which gives its burgers the appearance of “bleeding” meat. The burgers are not on the menu tonight, however, as the heme has not yet been given regulatory approval in either the UK or EU. In their place are chicken nuggets and a sausage-based shawarma, named the “Impossible dirty bab”.
The former taste just like the cheap and cheerful nuggets I remember eating at friends’ houses as a kid (my mum having banned them from home); meaty but totally un-animal-like, with an aftertaste reminiscent of a factory production line. Chewing releases pleasingly nebulous sensations: the wafting smell of slightly salty, overly-greasy breadcrumbs followed by a blandly gelatinous and beige taste in my mouth. Or, as one long-term vegetarian I speak to at the event says; “they’re fine – better than other bad non-meat nuggets I’ve had”.
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With the sausage it is harder to tell since the “sausage” slices are slathered in mayonnaise and jammed tightly between pickles, which overwhelm their taste. But it seems sufficiently salty, and I imagine it would go down well on a tipsy stumble home after a night out.
Both are relatively cheap, compared to meat options at the various outlets that will stock them from Tuesday 24 May. At Patty and Bun you’ll be able to purchase six nuggets for £6.50 (their animal-based wing offering is £6.95); at the plant-based Halo restaurant, a small order will be £5.45, a large £7.45; at Chicken Cottage, five nuggets will set you back around £6.50 for five and £9.75 for eight (London pricing). Alternatively, a Mcdonald’s vegan McPlant burger costs just £3.49 or at Burger King you can get a nine-piece vegan nugget meal for £6.69.
“It would be the first group to make a lot of money from selling plants, legally. I know other people selling plants, but they were a very, very different kind of plants,” joked comedian and entrepreneur Chabuddy G at the launch event. “I’m investing, mate; I wanna try and be the Elon Musk of plant-based food!,” he read aloud from a script.
His bravado speaks to a company culture that appears to put as much energy into creating a market for its products as it does into producing the food itself. But just because this is a product that both free-market Brexiteers and left-leaning Greens have potential reason to get behind, doesn’t mean they should.
Impossible Foods hopes the authorities will soon approve its genetically modified heme ingredient. Meanwhile, in the US, their products also make use of genetically modified soy protein concentrate – which is currently only permitted to be sold for direct human consumption in the UK if accompanied by a notification on ingredient packets or menus. The use of genetically modified soy brings down production costs by increasing the amount of environmentally harmful pesticides it is possible to use on crops, explains Liz O’Neill, the director of the umbrella group GM Freeze, which can put consumers off.
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The current rules around UK genetically modified organisms (GMOs) could yet change, however, in Impossible’s favour. “Let’s start now to liberate the UK’s extraordinary bioscience sector from anti-genetic modification rules,” Boris Johnson said in his first speech as prime minster in 2019. In a public consultation process run last year, 88 per cent of individuals opposed plans to remove new GM technique from the scope of GMO regulations, yet the Conservative government has decided to push ahead regardless.
For the environmentally minded, the explosion of trendy meat alternatives is a sign that a shift to more plant-based diets could be viable. The UN’s International Panel on Climate Change advises that a reduction in the consumption of meat and dairy could “substantially decrease” emissions. In this sense, as long as there is demand for fast food, tasty meat-free alternatives are a vast improvement on meat-heavy menus.
“We are not vegetarian but we want to cut down,” 24-year-old Ericka tells me in the queue outside the Impossible launch.
Yet while some environmental advocates, such as George Monbiot, envision a technology-driven future of renewable-powered factories saving land by producing food for local markets, I find it hard to believe that the offerings of Impossible Foods represent the kind of system change he advocates. To achieve that, food should aim to escape the trappings of Big Ag’s monopolised and highly internationalised food chains – not something the Impossible nuggets achieve.
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