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

As attitudes toward meat-eating shift and climate-conscious consumers experiment with alternatives, investors are throwing their money at mock meat startups that are replicating the smell and texture of a meaty burger. Economics correspondent Paul Solman explores the emerging technology that might help Americans wean off of their meat habit.

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  • 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 Brown:

    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 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 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:

    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 Brown:

    This is a protein, not starch, from potato. This is heme.

  • Paul Solman:

    That’s the secret sauce.

  • Patrick 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 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 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, no relation, 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:

    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:

    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 3,500 restaurants and grocery stores, including Whole Foods. And it recently inked a deal with Safeway.

  • Steve Heeley:

    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:

    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:

    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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