Can these mock meat entrepreneurs fool you with a plant-based burger?


JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first, let’s turn to a
story about the business of food. Economics correspondent Paul Solman takes
a look at two start-ups aiming to help the planet and improve health by serving up plant-based
burgers that they think will wean Americans off meat. It’s part of his weekly series, Making Sense. PAUL SOLMAN: It looks like a burger, cooks
like a burger, bleeds like a burger. NARRATOR: Introducing the impossible burger. It’s meat made from entirely from plants invented
by a pretty cool scientist Pat Brown. Hi, Pat. PAUL SOLMAN: Pat is CEO of a hot start-up
called Impossible Foods. This is your impossible place? PATRICK O. BROWN, CEO, Impossible Foods: This
is where the magic happens. PAUL SOLMAN: In a lab-to-table operation that’s
raised nearly 300 million venture capital dollars in Silicon Valley to make mock meat. What’s your background? Where were you from before this? I mean, what were you doing before this? PATRICK O. BROWN: I was a professor at Stanford
for 25 years, the medical school. PAUL SOLMAN: And just why has a famous tenured
ballyhooed biochemist flipped his super safe career to flip burgers? PATRICK O. BROWN: I realized that animals
are just a prehistoric technology, that using animals to produce food is the most destructive
technology in use on Earth today. The solution to the problem is develop a better
technology. PAUL SOLMAN: So, his lab rejiggers plant molecules
to replicate the fleshy flavor and texture, even the aroma. So, this is — so you get the smell of the
burger, right? CELESTE HOLZ-SCHIETINGER, Impossible Foods:
Correct. This is an olfactometer PAUL SOLMAN: Impossible’s flavor scientist,
Celeste Holz-Schietinger. But why is smell so important? CELESTE HOLZ-SCHIETINGER: There’s only actually
a few receptors on the tongue. There’s 400 different receptors in your nose. PAUL SOLMAN: And what are the basic ingredients? So, this is wheat protein. PATRICK O. BROWN: This is a protein, not starch,
from potato. This is heme. PAUL SOLMAN: That’s the secret sauce. PATRICK O. BROWN: We discovered that heme
is the magic ingredient that is uniquely responsible for giving meat its meaty flavor. PAUL SOLMAN: Or, as the CEO puts it in the
company’s rhapsodic heme biopic: PATRICK O. BROWN: Heme is a beautiful iron-containing
molecule, and it’s essential for pretty much life on Earth. PAUL SOLMAN: I see there’s actually a spot
of blood over there. That’s the heme, huh? PATRICK O. BROWN: Yes, that red color comes
from the heme molecule, same thing that makes your blood red. We have engineered yeast to produce a protein
that’s normally produced by a soy plant. PAUL SOLMAN: To impossible’s Brown, heme is
the competitive edge, but competing with whom? Turns out there’s another big player in the
plant-based burger business, run by another Brown: Ethan, CEO of Beyond Meat. He’s gone from fuel cells to food. And he too thinks mock meat is man’s gift
to the planet. ETHAN BROWN, CEO, Beyond Meat: If we can be
that group of people that separate meat from animals, that that’s a net-net plus for the
human race, and it’s worth investing in. PAUL SOLMAN: Impossible Foods has heme, Beyond
Meat, peas. ETHAN BROWN: We can take the amino acids from
peas, and we can basically reset the structure, so it takes on the fibrous texture of muscle
or meat. PAUL SOLMAN: Beyond’s technology has its own
high-profile venture investors, including Ray Lane. RAY LANE, GreatPoint Ventures: We had concluded
that there was a sea change going on in millennials and even the next generation down from millennials
in the way food was consumed, in the type of food and the attention to health. PAUL SOLMAN: With climate-consciousness trending,
investors have thrown their money into over half-a-dozen mock meat start-ups. For now, though, the game is between Impossible
and Beyond. Impossible has added a new plant that plans
to make a million pounds of meat a month to ship to some 200 high-end restaurants around
the country, but Beyond is already in over 3,5000 restaurants and grocery stores, including
Whole Foods. And it recently inked a deal with Safeway. STEVE HEELEY, CEO, Veggie Grill: This is our
Super Rica Burger. PAUL SOLMAN: Super Rica. OK, so they’re gaining acceptance, but what
do these babies taste like? This is like an In-N-Out Burger. STEVE HEELEY: We were looking for that all-American
burger flavor profile. PAUL SOLMAN: Now, I may be a gustatory peasant,
but these quarter-pounders were convincing and, when garnished, indistinguishable from
the usual real thing. In L.A., Steve Heeley is CEO of the fast casual
West Coast chain Veggie Grill. So, how much does it cost? STEVE HEELEY: The Beyond Burger is $12.95. PAUL SOLMAN: And how much of the cost is the
beef that isn’t? STEVE HEELEY: It’s much more expensive than
beef. Ground beef is at least half the price of
the Beyond Burger. PAUL SOLMAN: Beyond’s plant-based beef is
more than six bucks a pound wholesale. But, look, says Beyond’s CEO, this is just
the dawn of faux flesh technology with heavy up-front costs. ETHAN BROWN: And we’re already pricing where
grass-fed beef would price, right? We will dramatically underprice meat. PAUL SOLMAN: At vegetarian Clover Food Lab
in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and its dozen Boston area locations, Impossible meatball
sandwiches go for $12 each. Owner Ayr Muir, once an MIT materials science
and engineering major, prefers Impossible to Beyond for its taste and texture, but says
Impossible costs twice as much as grass-fed beef, six times its corn-fed, feedlot counterpart. And yet: AYR MUIR, Owner, Clover Food Lab The Impossible
meatball sandwich is rivaling our very best sandwich and leading to overall sales increase
at all of our restaurants. PAUL SOLMAN: As befits the so-called people’s
republic of Cambridge. But why meat at all? AYR MUIR: That helps bring people to Clover,
and then exposes them to vegetables they may not have gotten to otherwise, we’d love it. But if it just cannibalizes our sales of other
items that are more purely focused on vegetables, that’s probably not good for us. It’s up in the air for us. PAUL SOLMAN: And up in the air for the whole
mock meat industry, some would argue. Is this a fad, do you think, a revolution,
somewhere in between? MICHAEL POLLAN, Food Aficionado: Yes, it’s
probably somewhere in between. It’s an experiment a test to see whether you
can wean Americans off their beef habit. PAUL SOLMAN: That’s food aficionado Michael
Pollan, who joined me at Clover. Would you invest in one of these companies? MICHAEL POLLAN: No. (LAUGHTER) PAUL SOLMAN: Is that because you’re chicken
as an investor, or… MICHAEL POLLAN: No, the food business is tough. People in Silicon Valley will find the margins
are just not like what they’re used to. They’re all investing. They all want to disrupt the food industry,
as they tried to disrupt the energy industry, and that didn’t work. PAUL SOLMAN: Inside Clover, the lunch rush
continued. Overhead, a high-tech ceiling toyed with our
lighting, bedeviling the cameraman. But the food? So, now the blind taste test. MICHAEL POLLAN: Should I close my eyes? (CROSSTALK) PAUL SOLMAN: Please, please, if you would. It would be good. You can focus on it. You can’t tell the difference between that
and a meatball sub, can you? MICHAEL POLLAN: No. Thank God for that cheese. (LAUGHTER) PAUL SOLMAN: Spoken like a true cynic. MICHAEL POLLAN: We need to reduce our meat
consumption, and this is one strategy to do it. This restaurant has been doing it long before
they had a meat-like product with great success. I think that millennials’ attitudes towards
meat eating is changing a lot. They’re much more troubled by eating animals
than we are, and many of them are moving off meat. The challenge will be making it as cheap as
a McDonald’s hamburger. PAUL SOLMAN: And the challenge of creating
not just chopped meat, but steak, and of reducing the saturated fat from vegetable oils in these
patented patties without killing the taste, and, in Impossible’s case, of reassuring consumers
about the genetic modification that makes the heme, and, finally, of figuring out if
we and the planet will really be better off without any beef at all. But, as Judy so often says, that’s all we
have time for tonight, so we will save those questions for a second installment. For the “PBS NewsHour,” this is economics
correspondent Paul Solman, trying to make sense of mock meat.

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