Super Bowl ad starts squabble over fiber and 'poop' in food

Impossible Foods YouTube video takes on a TV spot fomenting fear over one of its ingredients.

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Dueling plant-based meat messages

Dueling messages from Impossible Foods (l) and the Center for Consumer Freedom (r) portray spelling bee contestants mystified by "poop" and "methylcellulose."

Impossible Foods and Center for Consumer Freedom

One Super Bowl 2020 TV commercial has been met with a parodic retort on YouTube , the latest salvo in a battle over the perception of plant-based meats. The TV spot claims plant-based meats contain a laxative, while the YouTube reply claims animal meat contains feces. Both are sort of correct.

The spot claiming plant-based meats contain a laxative was aired during the Super Bowl in the Washington, D.C. market by The Center for Consumer Freedom , a lobbying agency "supported by restaurants, food companies and thousands of individual consumers" and led by Rick Berman, who 60 Minutes descibed as Dr. Evil for being "against Mothers Against Drunk Driving, animal rights activists, food watchdog groups and unions of every kind."

The spot shows a spelling bee contestant mystified by the term "methylcellulose," which the spelling bee pronouncer describes as "a chemical laxative that is also used in synthetic meat" -- a clear broadside at products like the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger that contain methylcellulose as a texture agent. Methylcellulose is also used in some laxatives, like Citrucel.

But that ingredient merely puts plant-based burgers in the company of "baked goods, fried foods, desserts, candies and soups" according to a book by food scientist Fernanda de Godoi, PhD. It's a commonly used, hypoallergenic food ingredient that is a source of dietary fiber, something the NIH laments Americans get too little of, and is an ingredient that "is associated with digestive benefits, such as increased stool bulk," according to the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine.

Animal beef and pork contain no methylcellulose, or any other kind of dietary fiber.

In response to the Super Bowl spot, Impossible Foods posted a parody of it on YouTube in which a spelling bee contestant is given a much simpler word, "poop." The spelling bee pronouncer (played by Impossible founder Pat Brown) proceeds to define it as "the stinky brown stuff that comes out of your butt" and that it's also "in the ground beef we make from cows."

A USDA whitepaper acknowledges that "slaughter establishments recognize that contamination of meat by pathogenic microorganisms from fecal material...is reasonably likely to occur in the slaughter production process," though it also indicates that its Food Safety and Inspection Service "enforces a "zero tolerance standard for visible fecal material" on slaughtered meat, so you won't see feces-smeared meat at the grocer. But the Impossible Foods video cites a Consumer Reports beef safety test in 2015 that found "all 458 pounds of beef we examined contained bacteria that signified fecal contamination."

Most foodborne illnesses in the US are caused by uncooked leafy vegetables, while the most food-caused hospitalizations are caused by dairy and the most deaths by consumption of poultry, according to a CDC report covering the years 1998 to 2008. 

This squabble comes at a time when the pig processing industry is seeking approval to increase line speeds, or the rate at which animals are slaughtered and eviscerated in the slaughterhouse. Part of the plan would reduce the number of USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) inspectors, replacing them with increased self-regulation by the industry. But a 2013 report by the Office of the Inspector General found that, even with lower line speeds, "at 8 of the 30 plants we visited, inspectors did not always examine the internal organs of carcasses in accordance with FSIS inspection requirements" and that "(FSIS) enforcement policies do not deter swine slaughter plants from becoming repeat violators of the Federal Meat Inspection Act."

Impossible Foods launched its first plant-based pork product at CES in January.

Animal and plant-based meat producers are in the early innings of a long battle to redefine consumers' concept of "ick factors."

Impossible Foods and beyond: Burgers, bacon, fish born from plants and labs

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