An uncontrolled experiment in out of home eating

July 26, 2019 by Pat Thomas

Novelty, the ability to stay ahead of trends and to offer the unusual is one of the things that drives the restaurant business.

There is very little regulation around the kind of food that can be served. There’s no real prohibition, for instance, against serving endangered species – though this is a questionable practice, especially these days when everyone is talking about sustainability.

I once got sucked into a row with a chef who took very vocal exception to my timid suggestion to the maître‘d that the restaurant should not be serving Bluefin tuna – a magnificent and highly endangered fish. He countered by saying that a) the fish was already dead when he purchased it; and b) if he hadn’t snapped it up, somebody else would have.

Chef stopped short of ordering my date and I out of the restaurant but only when my companion, a lawyer, helpfully reminded him that he was certainly entitled to his opinion, just as we were, after being subjected to a string of invective, at volume in front of a room full of other diners, equally entitled to consider whether or not to pay the bill.

Over the years I’ve either been part of or witnessed several strained conversations with restaurant staff about the origins of the beef/pork/chicken/eggs/dairy/fish on the menu. Where did it come from? Is it free range? Is it wild caught? Nine times out of ten the answer is “I don’t know, I’ll have to check” – and even then it’s likely that no definitive answer will come.

A new complexity

The question of provenance and sustainability has taken on a new complexity with the advent of genetically engineered foods – which, these days, fall into the broad categories of older style genetically modified (GMO) and newer style gene-edited (GE) and synthetic biology (synbio) foods.

Biotechnology companies insist that these foods are part of the sustainability ‘mix’. But over the 25 years that they have been grown, GMOs have largely failed to prove their sustainability credentials. More importantly, consumers have consistently rejected them. In countries where they are grown – mostly the Americas – some supermarkets and restaurants have been led by their customers and pledged to be GMO-free.

That’s not as easy as it sounds. With GMO crops, the main way that producers have been able to create a market is by turning them into ‘hidden ingredients’ – the fats, fillers and sugars in pre-packaged foods and drinks. Some of them are used to produce a vast array of popular spirits; whiskeys, bourbons and vodkas. We don’t normally think much about the provenance of fast foods or cheap booze and without any labelling requirements for the starting materials, people continue to chomp and chug these popular comestibles without ever questioning where or what they come from.

Hiding in plain sight

This works in favour of an industry determined to ‘disrupt’ (whatever that actually means) the traditional food system. The problem is you can only disrupt the system if you can find a way in to it.

So if you wanted to push something into the food chain – something novel that might, under normal circumstances, give most eaters pause and provoke uncomfortable questions – how would you go about it?

Two recent headlines, both from the international edition of the Daily Mail, hint at the biotech industry’s answer:

“Genetically modified ANIMALS could soon be on the menu: Company is tweaking the DNA of salmon and hopes to sell it to restaurants” 

“Gene-edited food is already ‘in use and being eaten’ after quietly arriving in cooking oil at a restaurant in the Midwest”

In other words, you hide in plain sight. You look for an open door, somewhere where there aren’t too many rules about what you can serve, and where people go to ‘switch off’ and enjoy themselves.

Right now, restaurants are the open door through which poorly tested, inadequately regulated GMO foods and ingredients are slipping into the food system.

Exploiting a broken system

When Burger King began selling the vegetarian Impossible Burger – which already contained a questionable fake ‘blood’ element, produced using genetic engineering technology – manufacturers Impossible Foods claimed they had to change the recipe of the burger from using textured wheat protein as its main constituent to a GMO soya protein concentrate instead.

The GMO burger is now insinuating its way into the US food system via fast food joints and family restaurants. Leveraging the unquestioning and uncritical support of restaurants has undoubtedly helped Impossible Foods to advance its plans to roll out its products in supermarkets by the end of this year.

Throughout this process Impossible Foods has become very proficient at exploiting a flawed food safety system. For instance, earlier this year the company claimed that the US FDA – which had thus far refused to certify the soy leghemoglobin (the fake blood) as GRAS (generally recognised as safe) – had relented and finally approved the GRAS status of the ingredient.

Not so. FDA sent Impossible Foods what is known as a “no questions” letter which does exactly what it says; it lets the company know that the Agency does not have any further questions about the substance being assessed. The letter explicitly stated: “This letter is not an affirmation that soy leghemoglobin preparation is GRAS under 21 CFR 170.35.”

An uncontrolled experiment

The context for this “no questions” letter – which customers at Burger King and elsewhere will be unaware of – is that the GRAS/food additive process in the US is so broken that companies don’t need to go through the FDA to claim GRAS. Rather than do its job – and risk criticism from business and an increasingly pro-GMO government – FDA chose to make no decision at all and to passively allow Impossible Foods to continue to self-declare the GRAS status of its vegetarian pattie.

Looked at in one light, customers at Burger King and elsewhere are now eating what could be viewed as an experimental food – and all the restaurants selling the Impossible Burger, could equally be seen as facilitators of this public experiment.

It’s important to understand that this experiment neither begins nor ends with this particular product. This is a decades-long continuum, and the next phase will take us out of the realm of genetically engineered plant products in to flavouring ingredients brewed in giant vats from genetically engineered bacteria and farm animals that have been genetically engineered using a gene-editing technologies such as CRISPR.

Gene-edited animals are particularly concerning because of the sheer volume that could quickly enter the human food chain.

GMO salmon, as the above headline suggested, is already hitting the market via restaurants. This fish was made using older style genetic engineering and under existing regulations, by 2022 it will need to be labelled as a GMO. (You can read more about the GMO Salmon in our previous article Something fishy about sustainable fish, Chef?)

But regulators in some countries have taken a different view of the products of gene-editing. As things stand at the moment, gene-edited animal products will not require any labelling in the US. This, say the biotech companies, is a ‘win’ for business and innovation (and post-Brexit, the UK is likely to take a similar stand). Others, however, could equally argue that it is a ‘lose’ for informed consumer choice.

Is there a genuine need?

Ahead of a recent high-level roundtable on gene-edited farm animals in London, hosted by my organisation, Beyond GM, we took a quick straw poll via twitter. We wanted to find out what consumers’ most pressing question about GE animals was. While safety, ethics and regulation were deemed important, by an overwhelming margin the most pressing question was ‘Is there a genuine need?”. In other words, why are we doing this?

Biotech companies justify the need under several populist banners.

Under the banner of animal welfare, farm animals are being re-engineered to cope better with the unnatural and inhumane conditions on industrial farms. Mutilation, for instance, is common practice on such farms: cows are de-horned, piglets and lambs are tail-docked, while hens and turkeys have their beaks-trimmed. To address this cows are being genetically engineered to grow without horns, and pigs to grow without tails.

Chickens and pigs are also being engineered to be immune to certain viral infections which arise directly as a result of living in crowded factory farm conditions. Animals in the factory farming system are also prone to pain and stress. In a decidedly creepy advance of technology, biotech companies say they can re-engineer animals not to feel anything at all – thereby reducing their levels of distress.

Under the banner of ‘feeding the world’ a whole range of farm animals are being re-engineered to grow faster and produce more meat, milk and egg while consuming less feed. Under the banner of protecting the climate, there are cows and other ruminants being re-engineered to produce less methane.

Many of these animals are still in the experimental stage – in other words they have not been approved for human consumption. But there is no denying that they are on their way.

Simple experiments, unpredictable outcomes

It sounds so simple, indeed the PR around the new gene-editing techniques focuses almost entirely on how simple it is. But while it may be simple to use, the outcomes are far from straightforward, simple or easy to predict.

Thus recently, when Chinese researchers engineered rabbits to make them meatier, the animals developed enlarged tongues; similar experiments on pigs led some to develop an additional vertebrae. Sheep gene-edited to produce a particular colour of wool had more spontaneous abortions; calves in Brazil and New Zealand, genetically engineered to reduce heat stress, died prematurely.

These kinds of problems aren’t unique to genetically engineered animals. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) notes, for instance, that “long term genetic selection for high milk yield is the major factor causing poor welfare, in particular health problems, in dairy cows”.

Breeding hens to produce more and more eggs causes osteoporosis creating a substantial risk of fractures, as well as lameness. Likewise, breeding pigs for rapid growth leads to leg disorders and cardiovascular malfunction.

What genetic engineering brings, however, is a deeper entrenchment of a factory farming system that is not fit for a humane and sustainable future, nor for a sustainable table.

Drawing lines

The genetic engineering of farm animals brings with it inescapable questions about sustainability, about what we think that is, and how it’s best achieved. But it also provokes questions about how much or how little we are willing to retreat from the infinite growth model of business.

It also has an inescapable ethical dimension that encompasses how much or how little we value the animals in our farming system and our views on the sanctity of life.  This ethical dimension is being fully, vigorously and publicly debated when it comes to gene-edited human babies, but on the issue of gene-edited animals there is mostly silence.

Restaurants can have power and influence well beyond their own tables. But, as they say, with great power, also comes great responsibility.

As more and more new GMO foods come on stream, caterers, chefs and restaurateurs will need to be much more on the ball about all of this. Some of these issues can be addressed through the less-but-better-meat approach to menu planning. But some will require much tougher decisions about where to draw the lines around supply chains, dialogues with customers, voluntary labelling on menus and how far they want to participate in this uncontrolled experiment in human food.

What is clear is that, in the future, it is going to be harder and harder to justify menu choices based on novelty and trend alone.