The Fake Backlash to Fake Meat
Food activists angry about the processed nature of new plant-based meats are missing the point
Earlier this month, Chipotle CEO Brian Niccol explained that his company’s restaurants won’t offer plant-based meat like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods “because of the processing.”
It’s a strange position for Chipotle to take. First, it is not obvious to me why mixing and manipulating plants, as Impossible and Beyond do, make fake meat any more processed than the other ingredients served at Chipotle. I enjoy Chipotle from time to time. I have enjoyed their white flour tortillas. I have enjoyed their cheese, made using genetically modified enzymes and refilled throughout the day from bulk packages of a pre-shredded mixture. I have enjoyed their offerings of Coca-Cola, made from corn syrup, and Diet Coke, flavored with aspartame. I have enjoyed their sous vide beef. I have enjoyed their gypsum-infused soy tofu sofritas, which you could also call plant-based meat.
You get the idea.
Second, it is odd that a company that has long wrapped itself in the mantle of sustainability would refuse to serve plant-based meat but continue serving animal-based meat. Livestock production accounts for the bulk of the agricultural sector’s environmental impacts. Beef, which Impossible and Beyond aim principally to replace, is by far the worst offender, with order of magnitude higher water, land, and climate footprints than most foods, including other kinds of animal meat. Chipotle is, of course, free to serve whatever food it wants, but if Niccol has chosen to prioritize arbitrary food processing preferences over empirical environmental concerns, he should be honest about that.
Chipotle isn’t the half of it. That plant-based meat is “ultra-processed” or “hyper-processed” is a criticism I’ve heard more and more frequently over the past year or so, as fake meat has migrated from the high-end kitchens of San Francisco and New York to fast casual and fast food locations like Red Robin and Burger King. Just a few years ago, fake meat was a luxury, the signature ingredient of a $20 hamburger at San Francisco’s Jardiniere, something reserved for conspicuous eco-consumption. Now, somehow, the $6 Impossible Whopper offends a different…