Should We Condemn Hampton Creek and Impossible Foods for Animal Testing?

PETA is at it again. It recently emerged that both Hampton Creek and Impossible Foods had tests done on rats to ensure the safety of new food ingredients. As PETA reports it, these tests were completely optional, and they can’t wrap their minds around why they'd have to be done in the first place.

They go into grisly detail as to how these rats are typically treated, and common practices for disposing of them after the tests are concluded. Obviously, this is a problem, and no one who supports the end of animal suffering wants these tests taking place.

Not Technically a Legal Requirement

As it turns out, PETA was not sharing the whole story. It’s true that Hampton Creek and Impossible Foods were not legally required to test their new ingredients on animals. However, these tests appear to at least be an unofficial tacit requirement in order to attain Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) approval from the FDA. In other words, while it’s not technically a legal requirement, the FDA has a practice of not granting GRAS approval unless animal tests have been done.

If a food company doesn't get GRAS approval for their product, they won't be able to market it to major food distributors at best, and the FDA can have the product completely removed from shelves for not having this approval at worst. Every “novel” ingredient found in most vegan alternatives – cheeses, mayos, dressings, ice creams, etc. – have been tested on animals before being approved as a safe ingredient in food production. These include most protein isolates, as well as the increasingly ubiquitous xantham gum.

In support of their condemnation of Hampton Creek and Impossible Foods, PETA lists several popular vegan companies (at least popular among vegans and vegetarians) that never have, and state that they never will perform animal tests. There is an important note here: This simply means that these food companies are not developing any new ingredients in the production of their food.

This does not mean that these vegan companies are refraining from using any ingredients that had to be tested on animals before getting GRAS approval; they are just using ingredients that have already gotten this approval in the past – a process which invariably included animal testing.

Beyond Meat, one of the companies listed by PETA as never having animal tests done, uses pea protein as the main ingredient in their revolutionary Beyond Burger. The developers of pea protein, of course, were essentially required by the FDA to perform tests on animals when they were seeking GRAS approval. While PETA paints animal testing as a completely optional practice, it's something that simply cannot be avoided in the food industry. This practice does not speak to the ethics of food companies nearly so much as it speaks to the requirements of the FDA.

Why Continue to Develop New Food Ingredients?

You could argue that the alternative is simply to stick with the ingredients that we already have. Unfortunately, this has not yet been sufficient in the effort to provide a real meat replacement that can be marketed not just to vegans and vegetarians, but to meat-eaters. In the case of Impossible Foods, they discovered a way to synthesize what is essentially heme (that iron-rich stuff in your blood) using only plant sources.

This new ingredient was the key to making their Impossible Burger look, smell, and taste like the real thing. At the same time, their burgers do not require meat or animal products in their production. This new ingredient is the essential next step in creating a meat alternative that meat-eaters can see as a real alternative. Impossible Foods reported that “with heme, we can create meats that hard-core meat lovers can’t recognize as anything other than meat; half of the meat-lovers who taste it in blind tastings not only believe it’s meat from an cow [sic], but actually prefer it to meat from a cow.”

In a statement from Impossible Food’s CEO and Founder, Pat Brown, he provides the full story leading up to the animal testing of their new heme ingredient, and provides context for making the decision. Even though you’d think this guy was the devil incarnate, reading PETA’s account, Impossible Foods made every effort they could to avoid animal testing.

Pat himself is a strong opponent of animal testing across all industries, stating “in my 3-decade career in biomedical research, I always avoided using animals in experiments and developed new experimental methods to eliminate the incentive for using them.” He made the same effort in avoiding animal tests when testing the safety of heme. While seeking GRAS approval, Impossible Foods developed more rigorous tests than was standard or even necessary, and still the FDA refused to send the GRAS letter they needed.

At this point, Impossible Foods was stuck between a rock and a hard place. They could either have the animal tests done, or they could hang up their lab coats and close down shop. Pat and the rest of Impossible Foods “chose the least objectionable of the two choices available.” Understanding the reality of the positive impact the Impossible Burger is likely to have in reducing animal suffering, Impossible Foods had to decide that “choosing the option that advances the greater good is more important to us than ideological purity.”

Helping Farm Animals or Helping Existing Vegans

PETA states that “people are vegan because they don't want to pay for animals to suffer – so an animal-free burger that's been tested on animals completely defeats the purpose.” In my mind, this is a very narrow view of the situation. PETA has a history of condemning industry practices, laying down blanket claims that hold everyone equally responsible – statements that are so one-sided, and so severe, sometime gruesome in their reproach as to turn away not only the general audience, but their supporters, too.

The message becomes so hyperbolic, and so far from reasonable expectations in today’s society that it ends up falling on deaf ears, being pushed to the side as mere propaganda. In the end, these messages do very little to aid the efforts in increasing animal welfare.

Think of it this way: When someone is beginning their transition into veganism for the first time, you don’t tell them that they should look up the source for every ingredient in every food product they buy: Make sure that calcium isn’t from an animal source! Make sure you’re not buying foods containing sugars processed with bone char! You might as well give up now, if you can’t commit to being 100% vegan!

That’s simply not a reasonable expectation for a new vegan. Changing everything you eat is complicated enough, so to be fussy about every single ingredient is not only a waste of time, but it actually does more harm than good. If the transition becomes immediately exhausting because of the “all or nothing” mentality, then it becomes hard to stick with the vegan diet.

That’s why, when reading PETA’s statements regarding these (hopefully) one-time animal tests completely defeating the purpose, I have to think: who are you really protecting right now? Are you helping to end animal suffering as quickly as is reasonably possible? Again, this comes back to all or nothing.

PETA Needs to Step Out of Their Bubble

By condemning Hampton Creek and Impossible Foods as not being a vegan option, PETA is not protecting the animals, they're protecting existing vegans. Impossible Foods has a mission to end all animal use in food production by 2035. Hampton Creek is developing egg-free mayo and dressing alternatives that are not only popular and widely available, but are sold at reasonable prices anyone can afford. These companies are not just marketing their food products to vegans and vegetarians, they're marketing their foods to everyone.

That is the big difference. That's how these two companies have a chance to create a lasting impact, and reduce more animal suffering than any over-priced, trendy “cheeze” ever could. The purpose of Impossible Foods is not to provide vegans with more options; vegans already have more than enough options for delicious and nutritious cuisine, thanks to the vegetable kingdom.

The purpose is to create an alternative meat that will actually make meat-eaters consider it as a tasty option. In fact, Impossible Foods is not trying to expand on any food market, vegan or otherwise, they are trying to replace meat in the consumer market altogether. This is a bold mission, and they’re one of the first companies that show any promise in realizing this endeavor.

What do you think, will you continue to buy products from Hampton Creek, and will you support the Impossible Burger when it becomes available? Whose responsibility, if anyone's, do you think it is to support these companies? Get the discussion started in the comments below.

Comments

  1. I really wish more vegans would read this article.

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  2. Beautiful article. Thanks for being the voice of reason in this.

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  3. Its a really difficult decision to make. I love their goal of completely replacing meat and creating food that non vegans would choose over over animal derived foods. But it feels exactly like that, its a better option for non vegans. As a vegan that has discipline and has sacrificed so much to help stop cruelty to animals

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  4. As a vegan with discipline I've sacrificed a lot to help stop animal cruelty so it doesn't feel like a product for me. It just feels more targeted to meat eaters. I appreciate the innovation and I understand the bigger picture. I just feel like it goes against my ethics of being vegan. I'm sad because their products are so delicious but meat was delicious too and I couldn't justify eating it. I think I would rather eat bland veggie patties than harm animals in any way.

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    1. Fair enough. I think we should be careful to direct this sentiment where it counts: at the FDA, and to some extent the businesses that are beholden to the FDA. If we can make our voices heard, write enough complaint letters, we could get somewhere. Perhaps we can even influence some of these food companies to lobby the FDA on our behalf. It's my hope that the FDA will come to realize that it's important to a good chunk of the consumer base that animal testing be done away with, and that they develop an alternative solution to test food safety. This change will take time, and I believe that's where our energy should be spent on the matter.

      Where I believe our energy should not be spent -- you probably agree -- is in pushing people away from veganism, such as by telling them "you know you can't really be vegan if you squirt that Just Mayo on your sandwich." That would be discouraging to someone who's trying to do their best.

      To some extent it also becomes pedantic, because 95% of vegans eat something that has some ingredient that was tested on animals at some time. We protest Hampton Creek now, but somewhere down the line another food company is going to begin producing vegan products that include mung bean isolate -- the ingredient that Hampton Creek had to have tested -- do we protest that food company, too? This has already happened, vegan food companies are already using ingredients that had to be tested on animals decades before they went into business. That's why I think energy is best spent at the source: the FDA.

      If you feel it is unethical to personally purchase Hampton Creek products, more power to you. But I would be cautious in openly protesting the company and discouraging other people -- especially the vegan curious folks -- from buying their products, because this business is going to do more good than harm. A lot more good.

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  6. I appreciate this perspective a lot. My partner and I have decided to not purchase/consume Impossible or Hampton Creek products just on the basis of "if we have to sit down and debate the ethics, perhaps the simplest solution is to just not partake at all." We also feel like Impossible isn't really meant for vegans - I don't think I've ever seen them use the V-word on their marketing, website, etc. - and instead is targeting omnivorous audiences. Accordingly, when my non-vegan co-workers, family, and friends talk about the Impossible Burger, I do definitely encourage them to purchase it whenever possible. I'd always prefer for them consume a plant-based (note: not vegan, in my humble opinion) burger than a beef burger. Thank you for this write-up!

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  7. They as a company though is testing on animals which is different than having a product that has another been tested on animals. By using new products and testing them on animals and not only that impossible foods and Hampton have been serving their vegan products with non vegan ones. They are only in it for the money. That is what makes it in my opinion not vegan. If you're interested the vegan zombie on YouTube talks about the whole impossible food and Hampton being at food events serving meat and cheese with their products. They also don't clearly tell or advertise that not all of it is vegan.

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    1. Yeah, I mean, I don't see these new burgers as vegan products, and especially not as being marketed to vegans. But I think that's kind of the point. Vegans make up a very small part of the market share. You could say these companies are "only in it for the money" because they're making strategic moves to sway non-vegans -- the larger market share -- to consume their products, but I'm not sure that's the only obvious conclusion.

      What's a bigger step, giving the vegan minority a new veggie burger, or progressively replacing meat-based burgers in fast-food restaurants across the country? You could argue for the best of both worlds, and indeed, ideally they could get there without having to harm any animals, but as I mentioned above the new ingredient in this case was the key for the Impossible Burger. Whether it's worse to use ingredients that were tested on animals in the past or to use ingredients that presently have to be tested on animals, that's not an easy question to answer. I think the best answer would be for the FDA to remove the tacit requirement altogether and replace it with something more ethical.

      All of that is a moot point, however, because in my view these burgers are not for us (vegans), they're for meat eaters. And while I'm not advocating that vegan consumers should be obliged to directly support these companies, I think it would be unvegan (to put it harshly) to boycott these new burgers or to try to discourage people from eating them. As far as I'm concerned, this is likely to create the biggest dent in the animal agriculture industry since non-dairy milk.

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