A Butcher Walks Into A Meat Lab
Condé Nast Traveller India|February - March - April 2021
Will plant-based protein save the world? I left my home on a farm in upstate New York and travelled to the heart of Silicon Valley to find out.
Sophia Hampton
For the first time in a long time, I don’t smell like cow manure. Here in Oakland, California, nearly 5,000 kilometres from my home on a farm in upstate New York, I’m walking into the Impossible Foods production facility, a massive polygon of beige rectangles that can squish out a million kilos of plant-based meat a month. I’m a farmer in training and butcher, which means this place threatens to render my entire field of work obsolete. There’s gotta be a punchline around here somewhere.

To prep for my tour, I put on rubber boots, a snappable lab coat, a hairnet, a hard hat, and protective goggles. Someone gives me an X-ray detectable pen that can write in refrigerated temperatures. I wash and sterilise my hands about 3,000 times. There are automatic boot scrubbers and a machine that squirts out suds I’m supposed to stomp through on purpose. Along a yellow-painted pathway that indicates where pedestrians should stay to avoid the forklifts, I follow a man named Pierre whose official title here is Continuous Improvement Engineer.

We start in a chilly room with stainless-steel tanks towering over us. Pierre says they’re for making the potato protein, one of the 20 plantbased ingredients found inside an Impossible Burger. I ask about the potatoes. Yukon Golds? Russets? Who grew them? He taps a computer monitor, which tells us they’re not actually potatoes at all, more of a potato derivative, sourced from an undisclosed supplier. The screen lists about seven other chemical-sounding ingredients, and on second thought Pierre thinks maybe I’m not supposed to see this and we follow the yellow path to the main production line.

All Impossible products start with soy in two forms. There are sacks of textured soy protein, which looks like stale breadcrumbs, and barrels of soy leghemoglobin, aka heme, the genetically engineered red liquid that flavours an Impossible patty. I see a paddle mixer like the one I use back home to mix 14-pound batches of sausage, except there are six of them and each one can hold up to 1,225 kilos. They slap together all of the powders, goops, and particles that make up a substance resembling ground beef, and then another machine shoots it into a shaper that forms quarter-pound patties or five-pound wholesale bricks. The meatless ground beef is Impossible’s flagship product; the company has sold 11 million kilos of it in more than 15,000 restaurants and grocery stores worldwide. It moves on a conveyor belt through a freezer blast, becoming hard enough to slip squarely into vacuumsealed plastic. Then each package is X-rayed (for quality control), labelled, weighed, boxed, and stored in a freezer that could double as a parking garage.

At the Impossible factory, a few dozen humans are there to push buttons, flip packages right side up, pull out defective ones, and drive forklifts, while machines do the rest. In under an hour the production line has converted thousands of kilos of soy. It is efficient work. It is like nothing I’ve seen before.

Until I was eight I lived in rural New Mexico, and most of the meat I ate came from the woods. Sometimes bringing in the groceries meant helping my dad carry an elk from the back of his red pickup to the newspapercovered dining room table, a makeshift butcher block. Everyone I knew—my mom, my brothers, the neighbour guy— crowded around to help. Watching the animal turn into stew and broth and jerky right in front of me, I thought it was magic: the way one elk could be so much to so many people.

For real, though, I also thought microwavable mac ’n’ cheese was magic. I wanted to be a fairy princess when I grew up. Then I moved to suburbia, where woods are decorative and chickens are nuggets and pigs don’t fly because they’re in gestation crates. Meat stopped being a fairy tale.

Things got more complicated when I moved again—this time to New York City for college. My professors gave lectures with neat statistics that pegged livestock as an environmental menace due to its greenhouse gas emissions. But during those years I also started working on farms and in whole-animal butcher shops that had a different perspective on meat. On the farms, animals were understood to be as essential to a functioning ecosystem as herds of elk in the woods.

I watched flocks of chickens and ducks make the grass grow as they pecked, their poop a chemicalfree fertiliser. In the butcher shop I relearned how precious meat can be, and how with enough time and knowledge, all of it, down to the tendons, can be delicious. On a butcher block, with knife and handsaw, it took me about six hours to turn one 800-pound cow into bone broth, roast beef, steaks, and hamburgers, which could then feed hundreds of people. The magic was back.

Today I live and work on a 900acre biodynamic farm in New York’s Hudson Valley. I’m here on a research residency to learn how farms can include animals in the most sustainable way. I wake up at 5am to milk 52 mama cows that I know by name and udder. I binge-watch newborn calves, sticky jumbles of limbs and fur, plopping into the world. And with this joy comes the complicated, messy work of turning life into food. This past fall I spent hours collecting acorns to feed the pig that is now pork in my freezer. I was also there on the quiet October morning when he died. Cue that scene in The Lion King where Mufasa tells Simba about the antelope and the grass and how we’re all connected in the great circle of life. It hits me in the heart every time.

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