FDA delays response to ‘magic’ ingredient in Impossible Burger

The agency extends its review by 90 days, which was due on April 24

Chicago • The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has pushed back the deadline of a safety review of Impossible Foods Inc’s “magic” ingredient that makes its veggie burgers taste like meat, delaying a regulatory blessing the company has long sought.

The FDA extended its review by 90 days, according to an email the agency sent to the company’s outside counsel and obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The agency was previously slated to respond by April 24. No reason was given for the change.

The agency said in some instances, it needs more time to finish reviews. In the case of Impossible Foods, the FDA said in a statement it intends to complete the process within the new timeframe.

The 90-day extension is part of routine administrative protocol, Rachel Konrad, a spokeswoman for Impossible Foods, said by email. The company expects a positive response from the agency, she said. Meanwhile, the Impossible Burger is “totally safe to eat, and millions of people have enjoyed it,” she said.

The Redwood City, California-based company has said it’s asking the FDA to review its product’s safety in the interest of transparency, though the ingredient is already in compliance with existing regulations.

The company’s signature product, the Impossible Burger, contains an ingredient called heme (pronounced HEEM), a molecule that abounds in the blood and muscle of animals. It also exists in smaller amounts in plants, and Impossible Foods harvests it from soybean roots. The company uses a genetically modified yeast to mass-produce the substance. Impossible Foods CEO Patrick O Brown calls heme a “magic ingredient” that makes the company’s veggie burger taste, feel and look like beef.

Second Round

This is Impossible Foods’ second round of filings with the agency. In a previous effort, the FDA said the company had to establish the safety of the food by providing direct evidence. In most developed nations, companies usually have to get government approval before they can market novel food ingredients. By contrast, the US has a rule called “generally recognised as safe”, or GRAS, which allows the sale of foods containing new ingredients without FDA approval as long as experts say the additives are safe. Impossible Foods convened a panel in 2014 and has been GRAS-certified since.

Brown has disagreed with some of what the FDA has asked the company to do. “It’s a garbage test anyway, so who cares,” he said of a safety test the FDA asked the company to undertake, calling it “embarrassing” and “a joke”.

Some food safety and environmentalist groups have taken issue with Impossible Foods’ heme ingredient, saying it shouldn’t be on the market before the FDA gives its thumbs-up. Others hail the Impossible Burger as a way to wean people from eating beef, which degrades the environment.

Another Controversy

Heme is also involved in another controversy. While there’s no evidence the heme molecule itself causes cancer, a March survey of studies evaluating cancer and red meat from the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer reported there’s “strong evidence” that heme is a contributor, because eating heme can aid in the formation of carcinogens in the gut. Impossible Foods disagreed with the finding, citing “the scientific and logical flaws in each of the studies”.

Plant-based products like the Impossible Burger are on the rise. Chicago-based analysts at LEK Consulting have estimated that the market grew 8% to US$5 billion (RM19.9 billion) last year from 2016. The Impossible Burger has expanded to more menus, even to fast-food joints like White Castle. It also recently made its debut in Hong Kong.

According to the FDA’s website, a response to Impossible Foods’ notification is still pending. GRAS rules state that the agency commits to responding to notifications in 180 days, but can extend by 90 days if needed. — Bloomberg