Burger wars heat up as plant-based meat faces backlash

Beth Greenfield
Senior Editor
The Impossible Whopper and other plant-based burgers have sparked a backlash. (Photo illustration: Impossible Foods/Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Lifestyle)

Anyone who food shops or eats out, even occasionally, has likely noticed the influx of plant-based meat alternatives on the market — from Burger King’s Impossible Whopper and Dunkin’ Donuts’ Beyond Sausage Sandwich to the vast array of vegan meat imitators, with products by Gardein, Tofurkey, Field Roast and more filling supermarket aisles across the country.

Now comes the backlash — led by both an aggressive ad campaign and a series of legislative efforts.

“What’s hiding in your plant-based meat?” asked a full-page ad in the New York Times on Monday about the “ultra-processed imitations” filled with mysterious ingredients — to which Impossible Foods shot back “the Impossible Burger has none of the noxious slaughterhouse contaminants that can be found in almost all ground beef from cows.”

Call it the all-out battle of the burger.

With vegan foods surging into the mainstream — the U.S. plant-based food space grew 11 percent between 2018 and 2019 to $4.5 billion — pushback has grown among those who oppose the shift.

“The hamburger itself is a national icon,” Adam Chandler, author of Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America’s Fast-Food Kingdom, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “And for almost 100 years, it’s been synonymous with American life — and with American culinary life… There is such a simple joy associated with eating a hamburger. It’s an irreversible part of Americana.”

Perceiving a shift away from the hamburger, then, could really set people off — causing an angry response that activists say is inevitable.

Video: Are Plant-Based Meats Really Healthier?

“We used to just fly under their radar, but it doesn’t happen that way anymore,” Melanie Joy, a psychologist and activist and author of books including Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, tells Yahoo Lifestyle about vegan activists and the meat industry. “So, I’m not surprised. When a social movement gets strong enough to really challenge the power of the dominant system, the system fights back, and one strategy is to discredit beliefs and practices and everything that represents this change.”

Enter the full-page New York Times ad — and similar ones in USA Today and the Wall Street Journal — which noted that “Real burgers are brats and made from beef, pork, and spices.”

The campaign comes courtesy of the Center for Consumer Freedom, run by well-known lobbyist and publicist Richard Berman, whose past targets have included the Humane Society, the CDC and Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Now it appears that PETA and other members of what the website calls the “food police” are in Berman’s crosshairs.

“We’re in the middle of our campaign to present information to consumers that they may not be aware of,” Will Coggin, managing director of CCF, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “With a spate of recent stories, good and bad, regarding the fake meat industry, and Beyond Meat’s falling stock in the news, we thought it was an opportune time to get our message out there.”

The same day the latest CCF ad ran, House Representatives Anthony Brindisi and Roger Marshall introduced bipartisan legislation — backed by the biggest beef lobbying group in the U.S. — that would stop plant-based meat companies from using the word “meat” to market their products. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association says the legislation is necessary to protect consumers from “deceptive marketing practices, and cattle producers need to be able to compete on a fair, level playing field.”

"What's hiding in your plant-based meat?" asks a new add, featuring this image, from the Center for Consumer Freedom. (Photo: Center for Consumer Freedom)

But environmental and sustainable-food advocates reject that reasoning, noting that instead of being confused, consumers are making conscious decisions to buy plant-based alternatives to meat and cow’s milk — and that language options for describing certain foods are limited.

“This bill is a bald-faced attempt to get the government to police food labels to benefit the conventional meat industry, not consumers,” Matt Ball, a spokesperson for the Good Food Institute, which advocates for alternatives to animal products, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Demand for plant-based meats is skyrocketing in all regions of the country — including Kansas and New York. Rather than let consumers decide the winners and losers in a free marketplace, this bill attempts to stigmatize plant-based foods by requiring that they be labeled ‘imitation’ to tilt the playing field to benefit conventional meat.”

Fighting the exploding vegan-foods industry is just one way of coping with the shift. Others seem to have settled on an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach.

For example, chain restaurants including Burger King, White Castle, McDonald’s, Dunkin Donuts, TGI Fridays, Little Caesars, Subway, Big Boy, Carl’s Jr. and Cheesecake Factory all now offer some sort of plant-based meat menu item. (At Burger King, noted CEO Jose Cil this week, the Impossible Whopper has “quickly become one of the most successful product launches in Burger King’s history.”) And several actual meat companies — Tyson, Hormel, Smithfield and Perdue — have now rolled out their own plant-based alternatives.

“The propaganda campaign aims to spark a backlash and reverse or slow down the surge in popularity of plant-based meat,” Rachel Konrad, Impossible Burger spokeswoman, tells Yahoo Lifestyle, referring to CCF’s ads. “The fact that Berman is now the paid gun going after plant-based meat through his dark-money front group and his unsavory PR firm is the most obvious validation yet that plant-based meat poses an existential threat to incumbent animal agriculture.”

Adds PETA executive vice president Tracy Reiman, “The CCF is a front group for the imploding meat industry, which is scrambling to keep the inevitable vegan takeover at bay.” Reiman calls the ad a “sad attempt to market a ‘product’ that causes immense animal suffering, rampant environmental destruction, and severe health issues…” Activists further criticize the ads for relying on scare tactics.

“They don’t have any ethical ground to stand on, so they have to try to scare people and make them feel they’re going to get sick — which is a whole lot of projection, really,” says Joy. “Who would put that much money behind an ad if they didn’t feel threatened and weren’t invested in framing the conversation in a way that serves them?”

Asked about how some critics see the ad as the meat industry feeling threatened, Coggin says only, “We’ve seen different responses from different players.”

CCF’s website — and its sub-site, CleanFoodFacts.com, touted in the ads (and not able to load on Wednesday afternoon) — focuses on a consumer’s right to choose what to eat, in spite of appearing to take sides.

“A growing cabal of activists has meddled in Americans’ lives in recent years,” it says. “They include self-anointed ‘food police,’ health campaigners, trial lawyers, personal-finance do-gooders, animal-rights misanthropes and meddling bureaucrats. Their common denominator? They all claim to know ‘what’s best for you.’ In reality, they’re eroding our basic freedoms—the freedom to buy what we want, eat what we want, drink what we want, and raise our children as we see fit. When they push ordinary Americans around, we’re here to push back.”

Coggin does not get specific about who funds the organization, telling Yahoo Lifestyle, “Some of our funding comes from the food industry, from farm to fork. We also receive support from individuals and foundations.” To Food Navigator, he added that the lineup of donors “has included meat producers.”

Its website, and latest full-page ad, calls out “fake meats” for containing the following ingredients — methylcellulose, titanium dioxide, tertiary butylhydroquinone and disodium inosinate — only one of which, methylcellulose, a plant-based starch used for texture, is found in either Beyond or Impossible burgers. The others can be found in both processed vegan and meat products.

Still, the health benefits of the plant-based alternatives are indeed debatable. When comparing a beef Whopper to its Impossible version, the two are pretty equal on calories (270 vs. 240), saturated fat (8 grams for each) and protein (20 grams vs. 19 grams) — with the meat version containing more cholesterol (80 mg compared to the Impossible’s zero) and less dietary fiber (zero compared to Impossible’s 3 grams); but the vegan patty contains more sodium (230 mg compared to zero in the beef burger).

A body of research has largely pointed out that eating more red meat leads to less-healthier outcomes; organizations including the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association advise eating less red and processed meats. But then, causing controversy earlier this month, the Annals of Internal Medicine published studies arguing that eating red meat is only minimally risky for most people, with authors saying that it’s hard to make these conclusions at all, since the studies rely on self-reporting — and recommending that most people could continue eating meat at current levels.

And, back to the Impossible burger and its 21 ingredients, “Creating a food from a long list of ingredients doesn’t automatically make it unhealthy,” Ginny Kisch Messina, a registered dietician known as the “Vegan RD” and author of books including Vegan for Life, told Yahoo Lifestyle recently. “It depends on what the ingredients are. In fact, plant-based burgers may have some slight advantages over beef. For example, both of the plant-based burgers provide small amounts of fiber and calcium, and the soy protein in the Impossible Burger may help lower cholesterol levels.”

Some have questioned this “processed” approached the campaign is taking. “Is this really a can of worms the traditional meat industry and its allies want to open, though?” asks the Takeout. “It’s not as though industrial agriculture in this country is so candid itself. Excepting some premium, small-scale meat products, we’re far from the days when a person could easily meet the farmer or animals who produced their burgers. “

Konrad has regularly taken to social media to make similar points.

Where there seems to be considerably less debate, however, is how eschewing meat for plant-based foods could affect the health of the planet — as a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions come from food, and more than half of those emissions (58 percent) come from animal products, with half of those emissions coming from beef and lamb productions, according to recent findings published in the journal Science.

"We're not telling people to stop eating meat. In some places people have no other choice,” Prof. Pete Smith, an environmental scientist from Aberdeen University in the U.K., told the BBC. “But it's obvious that in the West we're eating far too much.”

Added Peter Stevenson, of Compassion in World Farming, "A reduction in meat consumption is essential if we are to meet climate targets."

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