Yes, the Impossible Burger is vegan.
As vegans, we strive to make decisions that help animals instead of harm them. Unfortunately, sometimes there are grey areas that both help and cause harm, so making an ethical decision is more challenging. As an organization that promotes vegan eating as means to help animals and grow the animal rights movement, we at Better Eating International think it’s important to be up front about where we land on these issues and how we’ve come to our decisions.
Some have argued that products made by companies like Impossible Foods, JUST, and Quorn should not be consumed by vegans because the companies tested on animals. While this initially seems like an obvious decision — we’d never buy cosmetics tested on animals, so why a burger? — it becomes far more complicated when you consider 1. the reasons behind the testing, 2. the potential these products have to spare millions of animals, 3. the precedent we and other vegans have set when making similar ethical decisions to benefit ourselves and companion animals, and 4. whether the vegan movement best serves animals by opposing speciesism or by seeking to avoid it.
What’s this all about?
This controversy stems from an obscure, decades-old policy that newly-created food additives and ingredients must be demonstrated to be safe for the public to consume before the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) will declare them as “Generally Regarded As Safe,” or GRAS. While FDA policy doesn’t specifically require animal testing, historical precedent is that the FDA will only grant approval if the applicant performs a feeding or digestibility study on rats or mice. As with most testing done on rodents, the results are questionable at best and the animals used are ultimately killed.
While GRAS approval from the FDA is not a legal requirement, many major grocery and restaurant chains require that food manufacturers obtain it for any new ingredients found in their products. This attempt to limit legal liability essentially creates an unwritten rule that any “new” ingredient that seeks mainstream distribution and sales will be tested on animals.
Many vegans have focused their criticism on Impossible Foods, JUST, and Quorn for directly contracting laboratories to conduct such testing. Unfortunately, animal testing is not limited to those three companies. Many ingredients that we consider to be vegan are also FDA GRAS: pea, hemp, rice, and other plant-based proteins; various plant-based lecithins; algae-based oils; annatto extract; spirulina; flaxseeds; and dozens more. As a result, many products widely considered vegan actually contain ingredients that were tested on animals.
It’s worth noting that the two most common plant-based proteins — soy and wheat — were already being widely consumed when the FDA instituted this program and, as a result, were not tested on animals for food safety. So while Beyond Meat, Ripple Foods, and the countless other companies that started using pea protein recently did not conduct any animal testing themselves, they are opting for a protein source that was tested on animals over one that was not. We struggle to see a significant moral difference between choosing a recently-tested ingredient intended for use in plant-based foods and testing a new ingredient yourself; just as we would not say that someone who buys animal meat at a store is behaving significantly more ethically than someone who raises and kills animals for their own consumption. (Ironically, the main ingredient in Impossible burgers is soy, which is not GRAS.)
So this leaves the animal rights movement in a dilemma: If consuming products with animal-tested ingredients is not vegan and therefore many popular plant-based products are not technically vegan, should we stop eating all these products?
How we define veganism
The Vegan Society defines veganism as “a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.” This definition has served our movement well, giving us a reference point to help guide often-complicated choices and decisions.
The definition is also widely understood to offer some wiggle room. Almost all modern medicine is tested on animals, but vegans still receive treatment because it’s deemed impossible or impracticable to refuse it. Some medicines and treatments are tested to meet legal minimums and some are excessively tested until they achieve the most desirable results for advertising, but most vegans put little to no effort into scrutinizing these practices because our own health is on the line. In other words, we (very reasonably) allow ourselves to make exceptions to our values in order to reduce human pain or prevent human deaths.
That’s not the only time when vegans believe the ends justify the means. We also spay and neuter dogs and cats in order to solve for overpopulation and reduce euthanasia rates. These procedures not only violate bodily autonomy, but also have a mortality rate of .03% — meaning that about 500,000 cats and dogs would die in order to spay and neuter the entire global population. To frame this another way: for every 10,000 cats spayed or neutered, we sacrifice at least three in order to spare thousands in the future. This practice is almost universally encouraged by the vegan community, yet it is not expressly permitted based on the common interpretation of the definition of veganism above.
Meanwhile, Impossible Foods hired a lab that killed at least 180 rats in order to create a substitute for beef that fools most non-vegans and is going to be available at the second-largest burger chain in the US, making veganism more normalized, convenient, and accessible to millions of people, including and especially those living in rural areas. It now has the potential to spare millions of cows and chickens (since many people who choose Impossible Burgers do so for the environment and would likely choose chicken over beef if Impossible were not available).
These are not ideal situations because we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in a society that is riddled with speciesist policies, social norms, and practices. To build a better world for animals, we need to get more people to recognize them as significant, sentient individuals — something that is very unlikely to happen so long as people continue to kill and eat them.
Products by Impossible Foods, JUST, Beyond Meat, and other companies help people remove animal products from their diet without feeling a sense of loss of their favorite foods; enabling them to develop the moral clarity to consider animals in a new light. These are folks who could be just a few Better Eating ads away from a lightbulb moment on animal rights. These options could also help retain more vegans. Social pressures and inconvenience are among the leading causes of vegan recidivism, so additional vegan meat options at the country’s most popular restaurants will likely help reduce that harm. The potential for movement growth is huge.
Veganism as an anti-speciesist strategy
So perhaps it’s time to reconsider how we interpret the Vegan Society definition of veganism. When we only allow for exceptions for what is not “possible and practicable” to benefit humans, we center our own needs but leave ambiguity around exceptions that benefit non-humans, such as spaying/neutering and some particularly-beneficial FDA GRAS foods.
While “possible and practicable” are reasonable exemptions to include and allow for flexibility from person to person, it betrays the obvious intentions of veganism to apply them merely to human self-preservation; they must apply also to how our choices may hinder the goal of animal liberation. In fact, by applying these exceptions to benefit humans but rarely animals, we are elevating our needs above theirs — which is speciesist in itself. If we instead center the lives of cows and chickens — and indeed all animals, including rats — it is not practicable to oppose the proliferation of products designed to help them.
Our job as animal advocates within a deeply speciesist society is to dismantle speciesism (anti-speciesism), not only to seek to avoid participating in it (non-speciesism). In fact, since oppressors cannot avoid benefiting from the oppressive systems they created, it would be impossible for any human to become non-speciesist within our current speciesist society.
Even as vegans, we make implicit decisions every day that harm non-human animals and benefit ourselves and our ability to freely exist in this society. Every time we pass by an animal in a cage without liberating them — or indeed, every time we drive a car — we are conforming with speciesist norms. In a way these are strategic choices, or acknowledgements that some forms of speciesism will have to be challenged after society begins to eliminate the most egregious forms first.
If we’re to challenge speciesism, we ought to move the focus away from our own personal consumption and toward how our consumption might influence and contribute to the broader effort to grow a movement for animal rights. With this strategy, being vegan centers animals and becomes anti-speciesist.
This is similar to how other movements operate when challenging entrenched societal norms. As environmentalists, we ask that people examine their own consumption habits, but don’t ask them to relocate from cities or towns that use coal-derived electricity; instead we ask them to challenge the system that allows coal power to still exist. As racial justice advocates, we encourage white people to use their privilege to help dismantle white supremacy, even though this privilege is a product of centuries of systemic racism. We ask them to be anti-racists and allies because it would be impossible for them to be non-racist in a system structured to benefit them.
Likewise, animal advocates seek to leverage our privilege as humans — all of which was gained through animal exploitation — to undo the speciesist culture we all live under. So let’s imagine if we added just a few words to our definition of veganism: “Veganism is a way of living which seeks to dismantle speciesism and exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.” This would truly center animals and the impact our actions have on them.
Let’s be clear: animal testing is unethical and we oppose any decision to engage in it and any policy that requires it, even implicitly. However, our opposition should not take the form of a consumer boycott if the product in question (food, medicine, or otherwise) has high potential to save lives — whether those lives are human or non-human. We appeal to all vegan food manufacturers to avoid animal testing where possible and to use what power they have to lobby the FDA to eliminate their insistence on the use of animal testing.
We respect people who may choose not to eat products that contain FDA GRAS ingredients out of moral principle, but encourage them to avoid criticizing people who choose to eat them. Better Eating would fully support any effort to lobby the FDA to shift their GRAS policy away from animal-based testing, yet we have no reason to believe that a boycott or a public condemnation of these products would help accomplish this goal. We will continue to include vegan products with FDA-GRAS approved ingredients in our educational materials and we actively celebrate their success and increased availability. We refuse to allow the FDA’s archaic stance on safety testing to hinder what could be significant breakthroughs in our mission to help animals and, ultimately, dismantle speciesism.