Recall of the Month: Impossible Burger

Since the FDA stamped the Impossible Burger with a GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) status in July 2018, we’ve heard several announcements from Impossible Foods regarding future partnerships and innovation. Then, after a California restaurant found a piece of plastic inside one of the brand’s “clean meat” patties, the company issued a voluntary recall on March 22, for products manufactured on February 19.

This recall comes on the heels of Impossible Foods rolling out their gluten-free Impossible Burger 2.0 at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, along with the assurance of retail sales and talks of a plant-based “steak” in the works. With lab-grown products on the horizon, the industry faces the potential of regulatory oversight, consumer perception, and the risk of increased recalls.

Plant-based foods getting closer to mainstream

A study by Nielsen and commissioned by the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA) shows retail sales of plant-based meat products grew a whopping 24% last year. This led Michele Simon, executive director of PBFA to say plant-based foods have gone “fully mainstream.”

For a company like Impossible Foods, which has sold 13 million Impossible Burgers since 2016, evolving public perception is key to future sales growth. The plant-based Impossible Burger uses a genetically-engineered heme protein called soy leghemoglobin to appeal to consumers who prefer the taste, smell and look of real meat.

Experts suggest that FDA approval of the genetically-modified yeast as a food color additive will increase customer confidence in the GMO-derived burger.

FDA and USDA announce a collaboration

On March 7, the USDA announced a “formal agreement to jointly oversee the production of human food products derived from the cells of livestock and poultry,” which includes lab-grown meats. The Impossible Burger is a plant-based product, putting it firmly in the FDA’s jurisdiction. However, concerns over the self-affirmation process used by corporations like Impossible Foods to skirt FDA regulations and questions about product labeling remain. The FDA’s response to consumer safety advocates will help determine the types and number of recalls.

A new wave of recalls

Although we’re less likely to see typical meat-related recalls for plant-based foods, many industries rely on machinery for automation. Tony Corbo, a senior lobbyist for Food & Water, told NBC that “recalls have ticked up partly because more food in meat plants is being prepared by machines with parts that can break off.”

Aside from production woes, the use of genetically-modified ingredients may increase the number of recalls due to labeling concerns over new allergens and from future studies on the long-term effects of various GMO ingredients.

As consumers navigate new terminology for recalls and learn more about genetically altered products, we expect corporations to use targeted campaigns to direct the conversation, and additional FDA oversight may be required.