How the Impossible Burger is Hurting Veganism

For years, I have made this blog decidedly unpolitical. I stay away from controversial topics to in effort to appeal to a wider audience and be as welcoming as possible. However, I think some things need to be said on this particular issue. I have a lot of readers, many of whom aren’t vegan. This article is one the few directed only at those that identify as vegan. Many of whom will disagree with me and not like what I have to say. There are few issues as controversial in the vegan community as that of Impossible Foods. The emergence of this company has showed me a side of the vegan community that I’ve never seen before in their overwhelming support of an animal tested product. Those speaking up against it have been few and fair between. So I’m speaking up and saying what needs to be said. Explaining a fact that was once considered obvious…that animal tested products are not and never will be vegan. 

The context– It’s unlikely that you haven’t heard of Impossible Foods or their infamous burger. It’s rare for a week to go by without a new restaurant announcing they carry it. It very well may be one of the most popular plant based items that I’ve ever seen. It is widely hailed as the most realistic tasting vegan burger. The problem is that it isn’t vegan at all because it was testing on animals. This burger contains an ingredient called heme (an iron rich compound). This ingredient is said to be the special ingredient that makes the burger so realistic. However, it had never used in food before. In order to obtain an optional GRAS (generally recognized as safe) certification from the FDA, animal trials would have to be conducted. So, over 188 rats were forced fed heme, killed and dissected in three separate studies. The hope was that this would lead to the certification which would then potentially lead to increased sales. It should be noted that as a result of the testing the company labels their burger as plant based and openly admits that it is not vegan. The product was in fact never created for vegans. It has always been intended as a plant based option for people that eat meat. Unfortunately, this does not stop the masses from asserting otherwise. So let’s address some of the most common arguments defending the Impossible burger and where they go wrong. 

The fault with the greater good argument– This seems to be the most common argument in favor of supporting Impossible Foods. The idea is that the animal trials are justified because the existence of the burger will cause fewer cows to be slaughtered and thus reduce overall suffering. I see two major issues with this greater good/net decrease in suffering/cows will be saved argument. First, the idea that we have a right to place a value on the life of another living being and decide whether or not they are worth sacrificing against their will is itself speciesist and against basic vegan principles.  As vegans, we believe that all life is equally precious and that animals are not here for us to use however we see fit. We have no right to sacrifice non human animals. Just as we would have to right to sacrifice another human being for the “greater good”. I would also dare to argue that the vegan community would not be so eager to dismiss the lives of these animals had they been puppies, kittens, or even pigs.

The second big issue with this argument is that it relies on the premise that the people buying the burger are individuals that would otherwise be buying meat. That is the only instance in which a cow could be considered saved through the purchase of this burger. An Impossible burger may indeed be the lesser of evils for a person that would otherwise eat meat. However, when a person that is vegan and would not eat meat either way chooses an Impossible burger they are literally saving zero cows.  They are not using it to replace meat. They are using it to replace the other cruelty free vegan burgers that they could be eating. Choosing instead to increase the demand for an animal tested product. If we want to increase the demand for vegan products then we should increase the demand for actual vegan products. 

Did they have a choice?– Another common argument that I hear is that the company had no choice. I can’t count the number of times someone has sent me a link to a letter written by the founder of Impossible Foods. In it, he describes his moral dilemma and what led him to make the choice that he did. People seem to take this as concrete proof that there was no other choice and he made the only logical decision. Don’t we always have a choice? This company could have chosen to omit the heme and avoid the potential “need” for testing. They could have proceeded with the ingredient but refused to pursue the optional certification. Even still,  they could chosen not to make a vegan burger at this time. Contrary to how the issue is being portrayed, this was not a life or death situation and the world would have gone on without this burger. So yes, there were plenty of choices. Based on it’s definition, veganism is to be adhered to “as far as possible and practicable”.  It is clear that there were several other more reasonable options and these animal trials were unnecessary, completely avoidable and a conscious decison. Furthermore, it is possible and practicable that as vegan consumers we would choose to maintain the integrity of veganism by not supporting a product that is the direct result of animal exploitation. 

The false idea that it only happened once– One round of testing is already too many and it is to the best of my knowledge that they have conducted three rounds of testing so far. This seems to be due to the fact that the original trials were rejected and the certification was originally denied (please note that the company was wildly successful while operating without the certification). It is also to my understanding that we have absolutely no guarantees that the company will not conduct further tests in the future. 

The hypocrisy of the taste argument– You would think the problem with this argument would be obvious to anyone that considers themselves vegan. Nevertheless, I have heard several “vegans” defend the use of heme because they felt it made the burger taste better. That’s right, vegans defending animal cruelty on the grounds of taste. This is the very same argument that people often use to justify eating animal flesh. Taste may not be the most common argument used to defend the Impossible burger, but I think it may be one of the dominate underlying issues. Many people support this company simply because they like the taste. They may come up with creative reasons to justify their actions but I think it really comes down to this fact. Vegans like the way this burger tastes and they don’t want to give it up. We are now guilty of the very same thing that we accuse meat eaters of. This is a blow to any moral high ground we may have claimed when it comes to animal welfare. 

The danger of the “nothing is really cruelty free argument”– For years vegans have prided themselves on their cruelty free lifestyles. Sure there may not be any such thing as zero harm. However, cruelty free is about reducing harm, making kind decisions and avoiding any product that is the direct result of animal cruelty (as far and possible and practicable). We have been diligent about avoiding cosmetics, toiletries, cleaning products etc. that are formulated in conjunction with animal testing. Many vegans will not even buy vegan products if that company is owned by a company that conducts animal testing. Despite all this, I have heard so many vegans suddenly claim (since this burger) that nothing is cruelty free and that everything was tested on animals once upon a time. So what exactly are we saying here? Have we all been wasting our time for years thinking we were buying cruelty free products? Should we give up on the cruelty free movement since supposedly the term has no real meaning? It seems this one product is causing us to question everything we have been working for and causing vegans to make statements that undermine the cruelty free movement. We have to be careful of what it is that we are implying when we start to justify vivisection by saying nothing is cruelty free. We run the risk of devaluing the efforts of all the amazing vegan companies that have gone above and beyond to create products that are animal ingredient and animal testing free. This is a slippery slope I don’t think we should go down. 

Let’s say that it’s true that everything has been tested on animals once upon a time. We can’t be held accountable for the actions of others and obviously we have to eat something. Using an ingredient that was tested a long time ago, in another part of the world and by someone else is one thing. Supporting a company that personally tortured, murdered and mutilated nearly 200 living beings is another.  Some of you will say I’m a purist or a militant vegan. However, it isn’t about perfection at all. As vegans, shouldn’t we at the very least try to cause the least harm possible? So even if everything has been tested on animals, wouldn’t the kindest choice have been the one that did not require additional animal deaths? Wouldn’t it have been preferable for Impossible Foods to select from an existing pool of ingredients rather than introduce an ingredient that would involve further animal testing? And shouldn’t we spend our money on products that were created with the least amount of suffering?

The harm of vegans supporting this company– The vegan community has in general openly embraced this company. It is rare that I find a “vegan” that does not support them, buy their products and argue on their behalf. Even the most influential vegan individuals and animal rights organizations advertise and/or voice open support for Impossible Foods. What message have we sent in our open support of an animal tested product? I think we have just given vivisection a green light. The vegan stamp of approval. I think we have opened the door for other companies to create animal tested plant based products knowing full well that they will have the support of the vegan community. I think we have proven ourselves to be the hypocrites that many always thought we were by rallying against animal tested mascara and simultaneously chomping on an animal tested burger. By shaming others for their animal cruelty while contributing to it ourselves. We have proven that we will use our power of consumerism to support an animal tested product, increasing its demand, and selecting it over it’s cruelty free competitors (i.e. the Beyond Burger). 

We failed– There is another article circulating that suggests that this was a test for the vegan community and that we failed. I agree. It was a test and we did fail. However, I disagree as to the context in which we failed. The vegan community failed because we let the allure of a realistic burger pull us away from the values that we hold so dear. Values of anti speciesism, anti animal exploitation and commitment to a cruelty free lifestyle. We failed because we refused to stand up for the voiceless beings that were killed by Impossible Foods. We failed because we fell prey to the same traps as veganisms opponents. We failed because we let our attachment to one product undermine the integrity of our cause. It is not my intention to incite more controversy. Rather, it is to encourage the vegan community to reflect on our actions and the messages that we send. To think about whether we are living in to what we claim to believe. Finally, to carefully consider whether a fondness for one burger is worth taking our movement several steps back. 

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