The last time we saw a Super Bowl commercial grip the nation was six years ago, during SB XLVIII. We were in the throes of Obama-era Americana morphing the once haughty neighborhoods of cities like Brooklyn and Boston into veritable hootenannies for hipster patriotism. Dodge capitalized on the flag-waving by leaning into our amber waves of grain with a cryptic homage to truck-reliant American farmers amplified by radio legend Paul Harvey’s “So God Made a Farmer” speech.
It brought more than a tear to the buzzed and humbled millions watching the Ravens step to victory over the 49ers. People set down their Bud Light, sat there with Dorito dusted fingers gripping the remote. It wasn’t perfect, it was criticized for overlooking women and minority farmers now making up a growing segment of our food producers, but it was two pure minutes of authentic nationalism. It was two minutes of Main Street Unity -- there is indeed a fabric that weaves this nation together. We were all unified as consumers willfully dependant on those anonymous producers waking at the crack of dawn 365 days a year so that we can have wheat for our game day pizza crust, corn for our nachos, and the bits of animals stuffed in every corner of most Super Bowl spreads.
Today, Super Bowl viewers will see another milestone commercial. It won’t likely bring you to tears. It won’t stop you dead in your tracks with humility or gratitude. It won't make you text your family or hold the gaze of your farmers market stall owners next Sunday. In all honesty, it might just make you really hungry for a burger (or a trip to warmer weather). But it is making history for a whole lot of important reasons.
The spot is an ad for the new Carl’s Jr. burger. The fast-food burger chain has run Super Bowl commercials before, mostly sexualizing its burgers with unnaturally beautiful women enjoying beef way too much. But this year, instead of objectifying women, it’ll be featuring its newest burger, the one made from the vegan Beyond Meat patty that looks, cooks, and tastes like beef.
It’s the first time a vegan meat company will feature in a Super Bowl ad. And, like Dodge tapped into the unsung heroes of our food system in America’s heartland in 2013, Carl’s Jr. taps another, albeit more modern American hero: food tech companies. Even though it's an old gold rusher in the ad, the real star is the burger he's holding. Made from plants, yes. But not without science.
Beyond Meat has done the near impossible (which also happens to be the name of its biggest rival in the meaty vegan burger front). The company launched the vegan Beyond Burger patty just three years ago and has already sold more than 25 million patties around the world. It's not your hippie aunt's vegan lentil and brown rice burger that mushes in the middle and dried out around the edges -- although, those are good, too. Made from peas, beets, and coconut, the Beyond Burger is the result of years of research. Scientists in lab coats with test tubes full of ingredients finding that perfect balance of color and mouthfeel in a burger that for all intents and purposes, is beef.
Food tech is nothing new. Scientists have been tinkering with ingredients for decades (read "The Dorito Effect" by Mark Schatzker if you're really curious). But those tinkerings were usually flavor-focused--getting a salad dressing or a cookie to be as delicious as possible. Beyond Meat and its competitors are deconstructing and then brilliantly reconstructing meat away from its undeniable environmental unsustainability, ethical intolerability, and disease-promoting probability. It's here, in Burger 2.0 land, that food scientists are working to make meat that tastes like meat but without all of the stuff that until now couldn't be avoided. It's a Houdini-esque move. And it's a pretty big deal.
Beyond Meat founder Ethan Brown, who resembles a football player--he’s big, broad, talks in team metaphors, and is all about moving that ball forward -- has one goal: He wants meat-eaters to eat less meat. They don’t have to give it up entirely, at least, not yet. But if there’s a sensible protein that tastes just like meat and is healthier and better for the planet, he’s pretty confident he’s got that in the Beyond Burger -- like an open receiver downfield ready for that game-winning reception.
One of the caveats to selling the Beyond Meat vegan burgers is that retailers -- we’re talking major U.S. supermarkets -- have to merchandise the product near the meat counters. This isn’t where a vegan or vegetarian would go looking for plant-based burgers. But just like consumers are diversifying their milk purchases -- 48 percent of all Americans now buy both dairy and nondairy beverages -- Brown and the rest of the plant protein category riding on his success, are banking on consumers seeking to enlarge their protein circles, too. And when vegan burgers are merchandised in the line of sight of meat eaters, they buy them.
In the EU, the McDonald’s McVegan burger has become one of the chain's best-sellers. It just added more vegan options in Sweden and a vegan Happy Meal option in the UK. Vegan cheese is available at major pizza chains in the UK, EU, Australia, and New Zealand. But the U.S. has been notoriously slow to embrace, some would say stubbornly resistant to, vegan food. There’s the beef lobby, for starters -- the one that sued Oprah for her outburst on national television after learning about mad cow disease. But there are other factors too, maybe even a bit of that American Pride Dodge capitalized on in 2013. The air of affluence that keeps Olive Garden and Red Lobster in business. The U.S. revolutionized modern industrial agriculture, too, after all --we took chicken from an expensive “special occasion” meat to cheaper by the deep-fried bucket. And we franchised out our industrial animal farming technology to every corner of the world -- from the growth hormones and antibiotic regimens to battery cages and slaughter speed lines now common practice. It has become unAmerican not to eat meat. (Or eggs, or dairy.)
At least, it was.
There’s a (possibly misattributed) C.S. Lewis quote that’s fitting here: “Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back everything is different?” For most people watching the commercial today or ordering the new Beyond Burger option at Carl’s Jr., its meatless origins won’t be detectable. It hits all the bases -- meaty, pink on the inside, crisped and browned perfectly everywhere else, juicy and balanced on a bun. No mush. Meat-eaters who know it’s vegan like it. Many of them love it. Meat eaters who don't know? Well, they just don't know it's not "real" meat.
And that’s a really big deal.
Because not only is our food system clearly changing, but it really needs to keep changing. Scores of experts agree that we cannot keep producing livestock -- 55 billion land animals per year -- without consequence to our air, land, water, and food supply. And those farmers Paul Harvey paid tribute to half a century ago, they’re part of that change -- they need to be the ones leading us toward a cleaner future, growing sustainable and ethical crops that can feed more people, reduce our impact on the planet, and by all means, end the needless suffering of billions of animals.
The Beyond Burger is waving us on to a new direction, and it's no accident that's happening during the most patriotic of all events. Beyond Meat and Carl's Jr. are telling us we don’t have to give up flavor or comfort and still make a difference. We have to. Like the game we'll all be watching that's rooted in risk and strategy, moving backward is never the path to victory. Not for football or our food system.
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