The food industry has a “weapon of mass destruction”. His name is Richard Berman. And he has his sights set on destroying the growing appetite for meatless burgers and plant-based meat substitutes.
Berman has form in this line of work. A longtime Washington DC lobbyist and PR strategist, he has advised – and tried to shield – some of America’s most powerful industries from criticism.
Berman has waged campaigns against animal welfare groups, labour unions and even Mothers Against Drunk Driving. His efforts earned him the title “Dr Evil” from his critics. He embraces the nicknames, displaying them prominently on his website.
Much of this work is enabled by funding from the industries under fire. His Center for Consumer Freedom, previously known as the Guest Choice Network, was started with a $600,000 donation from tobacco giant Philip Morris.
Berman’s modus operandi is to establish organizations (mostly not-for-profits) which are presented as neutral, independent thinktanks.
But Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics (Crew) – a DC-based pressure group which targets corporate money’s influence on politics – says of Berman’s not-for-profit organisations, “These groups present themselves as unbiased experts seeking to inform the public, in reality they are little more than front groups for Berman’s industry clients.”
Now, Berman is running a new campaign to educate the public about plant-based meat burgers, which have become rapidly popular in outlets like Burger King and Dunkin’ Donuts. Their increased popularity may have come in part from extensive media coverage and a current vogue for a more environmentally friendly, and potentially healthier, alternative to meat. Something that Berman is ready to take issue with.
“The rhetoric is ahead of the facts,” said Berman. “I’m not trying to say their stuff is going to kill you. What I am going to say is it is not healthier for you … These are not burgers or sausages or chicken strips that have been constructed with crushed celery.”
Berman recently took out full-page ads in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal to educate the public on “fake meat”. The latter even published an opinion piece by Berman, headlined, “Plant-based meat is all hat and no cattle”.
The new campaign criticizes plant-based meats for being “ultra-processed” and not living up to the health halo they benefit from. Berman’s comparisons are not subtle – the “CleanFoodFacts” website compares plant-based burgers to “dog food”.
But Berman is not the only one calling out some of the health claims made for meat substitutes – a growing number of researchers are pointing this out in academic journals, focusing on how plant-based meats are processed foods.
The burgers are, “of course ultra-processed”, said Carlos Monteiro, a prominent researcher of processed food at the University of São Paulo, Brazil. He said Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat burgers are made “with substances extracted from foods such as protein isolates” that are rearranged to, “resemble food”.
A recent editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) said environmental claims in particular warranted “further studies” and “vigilance” to ensure the products are indeed better for human health.
Two very different kinds of veggie burgers are now available in the US market. Traditional big food companies like Gardein and MorningStar Farms have been selling veggie burgers for decades, and still control the majority of the market. They tend to be lower-calorie, and geared toward vegetarians.
Then there are new entrants, most prominently Impossible Foods and Beyond Beef.These companies propose a loftier goal than providing some vegetarian food options: they seek a total replacement of the cattle industry. The CEO of Impossible Foods recently told a New Yorker writer that his goal was to push the meat industry “into a death spiral”.
To try to achieve this, new entrants have engineered a meatless burger to taste as similar to beef as possible. Often, this requires the addition of novel ingredients, as in the Impossible Burger, or more saturated fat, often derived from coconut oil.
Animal agriculture worldwide produces an estimated 13-18% of global greenhouse gases. Vegetarianism offers a a huge potential environmental benefit, but only about 3% of the US population forgoes meat. In chasing this ambitious goal, both companies have landed on “plant-based meats” – processed foods whose dietary profiles are remarkably close to traditional beef by being high in calories, protein and saturated fat and exceptionally salty.
Asked whether plant-based meats were healthy, a spokesman for the plant-based meat lobbying group Good Food Institute, Matt Ball, said, “It would depend on what your definition of health food is.
“Eating less red meat is generally considered a better nutritional path, and the Beyond Meat products and Impossible Foods products allow people to do that,” said Ball.
However, Harvard researchers writing an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association in August said such claims needed further scrutiny.
“While Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods burger patties are lower in total and saturated fat than a beef burger patty and contain zero cholesterol (they are similar in calories and protein), they are also both higher in sodium,” the Harvard nutrition and public health researchers wrote. “Without further studies, there is no evidence to substantiate that … nutrient differences alone offer a significant health benefit.”
A concern unique to Impossible Foods is its use of soy leghemoglobin or “heme”, a protein produced by genetically modified yeast to add color and an iron-y taste to its product. The JAMA editorial noted higher heme intake was associated with increased risk of Type II diabetes.
This concern is shared by a senior scientist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The group criticized the US Food and Drug Administration for a “bare bones” analysis of soy leghemoglobin.
“At a minimum, [the agency] should have determined whether soy leghemoglobin is associated with excretion of N-nitroso compounds, which is increased by heme and thought to play a role in meat-associated cancers,” said Lisa Lefferts, CSPI senior scientist, in September.
Dr Sue Klapholz, Impossible Foods vice-president of nutrition and health, said, “We’re not trying to create a health food, we’re trying to create a healthy replacement for cows.” She said she would recommend people eat Impossible Foods “beef” as “they would otherwise eat beef from a cow”.
Klapholz argued the public health benefits of abandoning beef production, such as reduced food poisoning, animal antibiotic use and greenhouse gases emissions, could be a boon to the world.
The Harvard researchers strike a note of caution in a rush to accept the claims made on behalf of meatless food. “While all or some of these meat alternative technologies could represent a significant opportunity to reduce greenhouse gases that fuel climate change, they also may represent a major disruption in food systems, agriculture, and fisheries, which could have important public health, environmental, and regulatory implications,” the researchers said.
As for Berman’s campaign, he does not reveal who gives him money, and many meat processing conglomerates that donated to Berman in the past are now producing their own plant-based products. Berman does not deny that animal agriculture contributes to greenhouse gases, nor does he want more regulation on plant-based burgers.
“I’m not the one saying these products are healthy, they’re the ones saying this,” said Berman. “The burden is on them to suggest the addition of all these additives, the ingredients, and the processing is better for you.”