Dan Murphy: The Alt-Meat Pitfall

Burger King is testing the Impossible Whopper, a plant-based meat alternative, in 59 of its restaurants in the St. Louis area. ( Burger King )

While media lavishes praise on the high-tech supporting alt-meat R&D, the cheerleaders hungry for vegan alternatives to red meat are ignoring the real threat its emergence presents.

You’ve probably already seen the news stories about a restaurant chain launching a trial with a non-meat burger. How could you not?

Whenever the alt-meat industry lands another niche in either the foodservice or retail sectors, media obligingly run breathless stories about how our world has been turned upside down: Plants are meat, fast-food is healthy, and our taste buds have been permanently reoriented to identify processed protein as real deal animal foods.

In this latest revolutionary development, Burger King’s Restaurant Brands International franchisee will begin selling plant-based the Impossible Whopper at 59 of its stores in the St. Louis area, with the news stories helpfully noting that the RBI group’s locations already sell vegetarian patties manufactured by Kellogg’s under its Morningstar Farms brand.

“We wanted to make sure we had something that lived up to the expectations of the Whopper,” Christopher Finazzo, Burger King's North America president, told Reuters.

Okay, let me stop laughing before continuing. Expectations? Yeah, I expect (hope) that my Whopper will be moderately warm, with the bun not completely soaked with all the goopy ketchup and various sauces drenched on top of the patty and tossed through a car window by a bored, disinterested teen-ager sometime before my vehicle runs out of gas.

Those are my “expectations.”

GMOs, anyone?

Finazzo went on to boast that the fast-food operator conducted “a blind taste test with our franchisees, with people in the office, with my partners on the executive team, and virtually nobody can tell the difference.”

I’ll take it at face value that even bigshot executives (apparently, the ultimate focus group) couldn’t tell they were eating an alt-meat patty. As noted above, by the time a Whopper is loaded up with all its toppings, dressings and sauces, the patty could be made of cardboard and more than a few customers couldn’t tell the difference.

Of course, the technology underlying the alt-meat category is impressive, although I’ve yet to read or hear a single word of complaint from any of the super-energized veganistas raving about the fact that the heme molecule, which is what gives the Impossible Burger its meat-like flavor and reddish appearance, is a GMO — a genetically engineered ingredient that in any other food can cause serious disease and destruction.

According to Greenpeace, anyway.

But here is an actual, substantive threat associated with alt-meat and it has nothing to do with science of technology.

Right now, in most areas of the country small-scale landowner-farmers can raise a modest herd of cattle, connect with a packing plant within reasonable proximity and either individually or as part of a co-op or other collective operation market their beef with some hopes of turning a profit.

Whether the product is positioned as grassfed, organically grown or locally raised — or some combination of all of the above—it’s still possible for independent farmers or ranchers to participate in the beef business.

Not so with alt-meat. There’s a reason Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have been the primary investors in funding the scaling up of this technology: Leveraging high-tech into massive monopolies are what they do.

From Google to Facebook to Apple to Microsoft, the business model is to create an innovation, then capitalize on consumer affinity with relentless advertising messages and ruthless pricing tactics, the result of which is market domination that precludes any upstart competitors from taking a piece of the action.

That’s exactly where the alt-meat industry is headed, and for all the fear and loathing vegan activists heap upon “Big Meat,” they appear incapable of recognizing that corporate control of plant-based food production is likely to end up as concentrated as the tech sector — which, it should be noted, is currently under attack from all quarters for both its inordinate size and influence, as well as the unsavory performance of its executives determined to maintain their dominance.

Like the participants in the Whopper-vs.-Impossible-Whopper taste test who were totally fooled, the veganistas cheering on plant-based “meat” products appear to be similarly clueless about the end game of the alt-meat manufacturers.

Their plant protein “burgers” may be satisfying, but the business model driving the sector will eventually turn the stomachs of the people currently salivating over alt-meat’s emergence.

The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.

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