Two of the Bay area’s hottest vegan startups – Impossible Foods and Hampton Creek – came under heavy criticism earlier this month for conducting animal testing on some of their ingredients. Both companies are founded by ethical vegans, making the backlash even more severe.
Along with eschewing animal products at mealtime, vegans don’t support other practices that harm animals, including animal testing. But it’s a process rampant in both the food and drug industries. “Basically, even for someone who consumes an exclusively plant-based diet, it is almost impossible to avoid ingredients that have been tested on animals,” writes Bruce Friedrich, executive director of the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit focused on supporting clean meat and plant-based alternatives to animal products.
Impossible Foods makes a meat-like meatless burger out of ingredients including heme, which comes from yeast cells that have soy leghemoglobin (found in the soy root) added through genetic modification. It submitted this ingredient to the FDA for GRAS approval (a recognition that ingredients are “generally regarded as safe”).
That process requires the ingredient to undergo animal testing.
Despite undergoing the test, the FDA "has not yet granted the approval the company sought,” reports PETA.
But according to Friedrich, it’s a critical step nonetheless.
“Establishing the GRAS status of a new protein through the FDA process is an important part of providing assurance to consumers that new ingredients are safe to consume, as well as satisfying the needs of retailers and governmental agencies worldwide,” Friedrich, wrote.
“Unfortunately, FDA essentially requires that companies conduct animal tests if they want to introduce novel ingredients into the food supply. Although these tests have been painted as discretionary in some quarters, in fact, FDA appears to require animal tests of any company that wishes to receive explicit acknowledgment from FDA that its new ingredient is safe (called a ‘no questions’ letter).”
But PETA contends it’s a step that's completely unnecessary. “Impossible Foods founder Patrick Brown has been disingenuous in talking of his ‘agonizing dilemma’ to subject animals to experimentation that the company never needed to do [italics theirs],” the group wrote. “Here's what really happens: Rats in laboratories usually live in plastic shoebox-sized containers stacked against a wall, deprived of everything that is natural to them, terrified of the humans who hurt them. Studies show their hearts race in fear even at the sound of the doorknob of the laboratory door turning. Brown has said that the rats were euthanized after the test but ‘euthanasia’ means painless mercy killing while, after a test like this, rats are usually killed by thwacking them against the wall, breaking their necks on the edge of a counter or table (yes, this is exactly what is done), or decapitating them with a guillotine. Just as cows aren't burgers, rats aren't tools for lab experiments.”
Brown says the decision to approve the animal testing was rooted in its priority to assure the safety of its products, even though many respected and credible companies forego the procedure.
“Although there was never a reason to suspect that soy leghemoglobin would pose any more risk than myoglobin, or any of the new proteins we encounter in our diet all the time, we started four years ago to do a deep scientific study of its safety, including any potential for toxicity or allergenicity,” he wrote on the Impossible Foods website. “The data we collected and our analyses were documented and reviewed by three independent food-safety experts in toxicology, allergenicity and yeast. In 2014, this expert panel unanimously concluded based on all the evidence that the protein is generally recognized as safe (“GRAS”) for human consumption.”
Hampton Creek, which has been working both to replace eggs in common food products like mayonnaise and salad dressings, as well as recently announcing its efforts to develop clean meat, submitted mung bean protein for GRAS review, with the corresponding animal testing.
“Mung bean, the primary ingredient in our Just Scramble, has been in the food system and digested safely by human beings and other species for thousands of years,” the company said via email. “After ensuring the non-toxic nature of this ingredient, rats were fed mung bean protein and their excrement was analyzed for undigested proteins. No rats were killed to assess digestibility. This test was important in our successful GRAS assessment to use mung bean protein in Just Scramble and other plant-based products.”
Both Hampton Creek and Impossible Foods have experienced tremendous growth in recent years. And even despite the news earlier this summer that Target pulled Hampton Creek’s products from its stores, the company told Organic Authority via email that consumers are simply shopping elsewhere to purchase their favorite Hampton Creek products, and sales continue to grow in numerous channels. Impossible Foods made news earlier this month when it raised $75 million, bringing its total funding to nearly $300 million.
“[We’re] committed to solving the most urgent threat the world faces today: the use of animals in the food system,” Brown wrote.
Friedrich echoes that sentiment: “Having allies that are actually developing new proteins will be absolutely invaluable in making progress. With these companies’ assistance, we may be able to convince FDA to explicitly allow for in vitro alternatives to animal tests, which will save thousands of animals annually from these cruel and unnecessary tests.”
PETA says consumers who oppose animal testing can still find plenty of vegan products that don't test on animals. "Other companies with fabulous vegan meats and other innovative vegan products have confirmed that they do not, have not, and will not ever test on animals," the group wrote. "These include Beyond Meat, Field Roast, Gardein, Yves, Follow Your Heart, Sunshine Burger, Amy's Kitchen, Sweet Earth, Dr. Praeger's Purely Sensible Foods, and others. Their products have all been developed and brought to market without harming animals."
The Good Food Institute points concerned consumers to this list of all items granted GRAS status.
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