Editors’ note, November 14, 2019, 12:17 p.m.: Richard Berman has asked us to clarify a few things discussed in the interview with Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown and chief communications officer Rachel Konrad. The introduction has been corrected to reflect these clarifications.
1. Though Richard Berman has accepted money from the tobacco industry in the past, he has “never lobbied to protect cigarettes. About 25 years ago, [he] did promote the concept of allowing restaurants the option of having separate smoking sections.”
2. Berman is not a climate denier and and says there is no such quote from him about “telling the story of big beef.”
3. Though Berman runs a for-profit PR firm called Berman & Co. which has been paid by the Center for Consumer Freedom in the course of its advocacy for positions beneficial to the fast food, meat, and restaurant industries, like launching attacks on the Humane Society, and fighting against efforts to limit the sale of soda in school, the Center is a nonprofit, and therefore does not have clients, meaning it has “never represented the soda industry, tobacco, cruelty to animals or mad cow disease.” And as a tax-exempt non-profit, the Center does not have to disclose its donor list.
4. “There is nothing illegal about the management of the Center for Consumer Freedom. CCF is operated in accordance with the law and IRS regulations,” Berman said. However, the organization was audited by the IRS following a formal complaint filed by a watchdog organization in 2004.
Pat Brown is on a mission to save the planet by cutting one thing from our lives: cows. The Impossible Foods CEO is determined to cut the consumption of beef to save our planet from the jaw-dropping effects of big agriculture. One obstacle standing in his way: Richard Berman, a powerful Washington lobbyist.
Berman, who served as the inspiration for Nick Naylor in Thank You for Smoking, has made a name for himself going to bat for special interest groups fighting losing battles to save their image. He’s pushed to protect things like cigarettes and high fructose corn syrup [ed: See top note for clarification from Berman], and launched multifaceted attacks against M.A.D.D. (that’s Mothers Against Drunk Driving) and the Humane Society. Berman’s busted unionizing efforts and fought against raising the minimum wage; now, he’s got a new client in the beef lobby and a new target in meat substitutes.
Berman is one of plant-based meat’s most formidable opponents, protected by a shadowy nonprofit called the Center for Consumer Freedom. But Impossible thinks Berman’s involvement means the beef lobby is terrified for the future of their industry, and scrambling to save their buns.
Daniel spoke with Pat Brown and Impossible’s chief communications officer Rachel Konrad on the latest episode of Eater’s Digest.
Below, a lightly edited transcript of Daniel’s interviews with Pat Brown and Rachel Konrad.
Amanda: So let’s lay the groundwork for what this plant based meat situation is.
Amanda: Here are the questions I prepped for. First of all, what are the regulations regarding the word meat? I think this is going to play into your conversation with Pat.
Dan: Not as much as you’d think.
Amanda: Okay. Well here’s something interesting. The meat lobby has gotten bills proposed in 25 states, and 12 of them have passed where people cannot use the word meat. In Arkansas you can’t even use the word veggie burger.
Amanda: Isn’t that crazy?
Dan: Yeah, that’s nuts. Impossible’s actually not as interested in the fight over the word meat. They’re clearly aware of it, but to them that feels like a bit of a sticks and stones thing.
Amanda: Well, and it would take so much energy for them to fight the meat lobby on that ground. Like, why? Just let them have it. People are going to understand what this thing is that they’re selling. The main reason why these burgers are taking off everywhere is because of the environmental impact. That’s why you care. That’s why I care. Tad Friend had a 20,000 word, I think-
Amanda: Really? You counted?
Dan: Well no, but my Kindle tells me, and I was like these are the words I got to get through. I counted every single word.
Amanda: This is long but so good. He really got into the environmental impact. The biggest stat from his piece that stuck with me was that 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions come from cows. So cows are releasing all this methane into the atmosphere.
Dan: So the thesis here is that if we get rid of cows, we will actually cut our impact on global warming by something like way north of 50%. Because 14.5% of the emissions come directly from cows.
Amanda: Just from the cow burps.
Dan: Burps and farts. It’s funny how these things get wrapped up and we have these kind of like cute monikers for things like cow farts when it’s actually just the gas produced from the stomach. That is just from the cows.
Amanda: That’s just the animal. What about everything the feed?
Dan: Yeah, so Impossible does a really smart thing where they refer to beef and cows as a meat creating technology and as a technology meat is incredibly inefficient.
Amanda: Oh yeah. So ruminant animals, mostly beef, it turns out they provide 3% of calories, but they occupy 41% of the United States land area. But beyond that, one third of arable land in the world is used to create feed for livestock. One third of arable land in the world. So this is not just about their emissions, it’s not just about the land used to raise the cows, it’s about the land used to raise the food for the cows.
Dan: Can I tell you about my personal journey with this information? And that is like three weeks ago I did not give a shit. And then I started talking to Pat Brown to Rachel from Impossible.
Amanda: They really sold you?
Dan: Now, I’m a crusader.
Amanda: You just sound very impressionable, though.
Dan: I can’t even think what other things have I felt like this about? I mean, I guess I was like mister kill the plastic straws for awhile, but this feels so different and not only does this feel different to me, but it feels like an easy thing that we can champion that is going to make a significant impact. And if you believe Pat, and you have no reason not to, the most important thing we can do as a species.
Amanda: Yeah, totally.
Dan: You have referred to me in the past as gullible and impressionable. Talking to Pat really, really blew my mind.
Amanda: He sold you.
Dan: Yeah. Listen to Pat Brown on just the agriculture element.
Pat: The pigs being raised for food out weigh every remaining wild vertebrate on land by more than a factor of two. The chickens being raised for food outweigh every remaining wild bird by more than a factor of two. So, this is how insanely distorted these invasive species have basically driven pretty much the biodiversity of the world out of their niches and over the edge. When you see smoke coming out of the Amazon, that’s the second hand smoke from that burger you just ate.
Amanda: So what did you and Pat talk about?
Dan: So I was really interested in talking to him about these attacks or attempt at a take down that was coming from these lobbies, the Center for Consumer Freedom. That through shadow money is probably being paid for by big beef. Essentially what is the beef lobby? Richard Berman is the guy behind Thank You for Smoking. He’s like the angel of death. He accepts the moniker Dr. Evil. He has represented big soda, smoking. He represented cruelty to animals, mad cow disease. He has helped a lot with lowering taxes, the national debt, drinking and driving. He’s argued against lowering the legal limit for blood alcohol percentage.
Amanda: On behalf of alcohol companies?
Dan: Big booze.
Amanda: Oh my God. It’s like those lawyers that will defend like serial killers.
Dan: You never know with the serial killers, though. Anyway, back to Berman. So big beef has hired Berman, a big hired gun, to start attacking Impossible and we have all felt the ripples of his very successful attacks. I was talking to my mom on the phone the other day, she was talking to me about Impossible or I was telling her that I was working on this and she goes, “Oh, you know, but Impossible. It is made with a lot of very, very processed ingredients.”
Amanda: Yes, the highly processed argument or the unhealthy argument has been gaining lot of steam lately. It’s a little bogus.
Dan: And is coming from him. Process doesn’t mean anything.
Amanda: Well, especially when you’re comparing it to a burger, you know? Like yes, go eat a salad, go eat Whole Foods. Like Whole Foods now says they won’t supply, they won’t stock beyond meat because it’s processed and the Whole Foods guy wants you to only eat whole foods. But think about how many other processed food is in Whole Foods that he does sell.
Dan: So my mom said this and I and normally I would have been like you’re right. I don’t want to eat all that soy or whatever. I was like this guy is very effective. Anyway. Even the fact that he is employed now by big beef directly to take out these substitutes shows that they are really, maybe not from a financial perspective, but a conversational perspective, taking a dent out of big beef strongholds.
Amanda: Well also big beef is investing in these companies.
Dan: Some of them are, some of them are.
Amanda:Some of them are. They’re hedging their bets.
Dan: Some of them are creating their own lines of substitutes. Absolutely. So Amanda, I talked for awhile to Pat Brown and eventually to Rachel Konrad. I wanted to know more about the company and how they’re dealing with this PR battle.The legendary story on Impossible’s origin is that you took time to figure out what was the best way that you could, I think, have an impact on the planet. And you decided that Impossible or that that eliminating the meat industry was how you would do it. But were there any other options that you considered?
Pat: Not for very long. I was surprised that I didn’t already know how catastrophic or destructive it was. I guess initially when I took on this project, I thought it would wind up moving toward renewable energy sources and stuff like that because I was as ignorant as most of the public is today in thinking that that’s the big environmental challenge. It’s not even close. It very quickly became clear that this is by far not only the biggest environmental threat to the world, it’s the biggest threat potentially to the future of the global ecosystems and human civilization that we’ve ever had. And so it was a no brainer.
Dan: Pat and Impossible believe that the best way of fixing the planet would be eliminating these animals all together.
Pat: If you could just make that industry disappear right now because that land, footprint is so huge and it represents an opportunity to use the best carbon capture technology that ever invented, which is photosynthesis, to pull carbon out of the air. If you could get rid of the industry, snap your fingers, get rid of the industry atmospherics CO2 levels would immediately start coming down. Okay.
Dan: Pat’s main goal is to give people all of the experiences that they loved with meat, but take away the environmental impact.
Pat:I think of us as basically developing a better way to make these products that the world loves and will continue to want, and there is an incumbent industry that is using this prehistoric technology to produce them with catastrophic consequences for the global environment.
Dan: Impossible’s message and their success have gotten the attention of big beef.
Pat: They were paying a lot of attention to us before we even had launched our first product. It was to a very surprising degree.
Dan: Oh, interesting.
Pat: Yeah. I think they were collecting intelligence on us. We know that from a couple of sources. Again, I think it was before we launched commercially anything. I had a conversation with someone who was a lobbyist in Washington who was friend of a friend who basically had received a communication from someone in that industry that basically asked them to participate in an effort to take down this silly company, Impossible Foods, or better yet have Congress or USAD do so. The interesting phrase was the budget is essentially unlimited. So this is before we launched the product.
Dan: What blow back are you feeling now from lobbyists?
Pat: There’s obviously a lot of effort to limit our ability to market our products. That just has to do with regulations around what we can call them and how we can talk about them. There were efforts in a number of producing States to put those restrictions on. I would say by and large they were not very successful. I don’t think that the smart money is betting that it will withstand a constitutional challenge. They’ve hired this guy Richard Berman, the Center for Consumer Freedom, who’s like mister mouthpiece for every big evil industry you can think of.Which I feel like boy, that’s a point of pride for me. You definitely want to be the people he’s going after. Not the people who he’s defending.
Dan: Richard Berman, again, is the inspiration behind the movie Thank You for Smoking. As I said, he’s defended cigarettes. He’s lobbied against raising the minimum wage and lowering blood alcohol content limits for drivers. His PR group’s website proudly declares him quote the industry’s weapon of mass destruction. Berman has his sight set on Impossible and the person from Impossible who is really locking horns with him is Rachel Konrad, their chief communications officer.
Rachel Konrad: He is probably the sleaziest PR guy in America. He’s of course a raging climate denier. He’s actually now taken the mantle to try to defend big beef and to really quote, “Tell the story of big beef.” His nonprofit has taken out advertisements in Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. He’s done a series of stupid op-eds that tried to question the nutritional benefits of plant based meat. He loves to trash plant based meat as too processed, which is complete bullshit. I think that the biggest possible validation that we are truly about to change the world is the fact that they’ve hired Richard Berman. Like you don’t hire Richard Berman unless you are evil incumbent industry so reviled that your back is against the wall.
Dan: Berman and his influence have been hard to trace. He is protected by layers and layers of organizational smoke and mirrors that help hide where exactly the money is coming from and where he’s spending it. We actually called Berman and his assistant said that he wasn’t interested in having a conversation with us.
Rachel: It’s very difficult to be honest. The way he structured his organization is pretty clever. It’s very hard to see who the donors are. There are a lot of questions about the legality of it. Like he’s running a series of nonprofits, but he’s collecting $16 million from it. You can’t do stuff like that.
Dan: This fight is happening in two places. Right? It’s questioning the quality of your product and also surrounding the use of the word meat. Right?
Rachel: Richard Berman really is doing this from a PR lens. And his big attack is twofold. It’s one that we’re processed and two, it’s that essentially real men eat real meat and this stuff doesn’t have enough protein and which is completely bullshit again.
Dan: It’s funny because I feel like the media tends to pick up on this fight over the word meat. But what you’re saying is this is more of a deep state fight of public influence.
Rachel: Oh for sure. This is much more about the hearts and minds of consumers rather than legislators as far as I can tell. It might be that he is behind some of these legislative efforts in various states, but I can’t prove that. I can prove that he is on the warpath writing op-eds and creating these bullshit websites and stating things like those plant-based products are just full of chemicals. I mean, I lean really heavily into that. Yes, it is chemicals. In fact, everything is chemical. It’s all chemistry. All of food. The history of food is one of science and nature.
Dan: The way Rachel sees it, our meatless future is inevitable, but she understands the tradition and the impact that meat has had on our civilization.
Rachel: The question for me is really, are we going to do this in a way that is incredibly catastrophic or are we going to do it in a way that is sensible and logical and continues to preserve the sort of rituals that we have around meat and burgers on the barbecue grill and all that kind of stuff. Or are we all going to be sadly drinking our gritty beverages and not having delicious rituals around food like that. That’s the real choice.
Dan: You just really don’t want the grill to go away?
Rachel: I just bought one. I just bought one for Impossible burger, so we have to keep using it.
Dan: Okay. You’re biased then?
Rachel: No, you know what I mean?
Rachel: Food is super important as a cultural zeitgeist, right? I mean, food is where we gather around food. We comfort ourselves with food. We celebrate with food. We use it as ritual, whether it’s a wedding or a funeral or a birth or whatever. Like it’s just so important to our lives. The solution to preserve our quality of life is not to eliminate animals from the food chain and replace it all with sad, sad beverages that have the protein in them or anything like that. It’s to recreate all of that explosion of aromas and all of the magic around meat because it truly is special in our diets.
Dan: Right. We’re instinctually drawn to it.
Rachel: Totally. I mean, and our bodies are programmed to crave heme essentially, which is, that magic molecule that we use to carry oxygen through our bodies. It’s required for life. Literally. If you don’t have heme you die pretty quickly. So that’s the thing that you really want. Right? And so I understand on some level why the animal industry, animal ag industry would want to protect this. It’s that same sort of carnivore, territorial attitude, right? Like you’ve got to protect it and it’s like, actually no, we’ve got a better solution that doesn’t turn the planet into a giant flaming ash heap.
Dan: Is it worth publicly squaring off against Berman or are you going to combat what he’s saying?
Rachel: That’s a very, that’s a very good question. I’m certainly combating what he’s saying. By combating I’m not saying that he’s wrong. I mean our food is processed. So is pretty much everything else you eat. If you think a banana that you eat is natural, like it bears no resemblance to a banana from a thousand years ago. Right? Like it’s all a process between science and nature. So, I have no choice but to lean into and combat the bullshit that he’s propagating. Now, whether it’s a street fight between Impossible Foods and the Center for Consumer Freedom, his dark money front group. I don’t care. I mean, I’ll do whatever I have to do to make people understand that this company is on the right side of history and he’s not.
Dan: Do you think that Richard Berman turned down a job at like Jewel or something to work with meat?
Rachel: I have no idea. That’s a good question.
Dan: I asked Pat if he was nervous about Berman and whether or not he felt like he could have an impact on their company.
Pat: You know, we’ve had a number of people ask questions about bogus issues.
Dan: What about the idea that the soy and and peas are actually just as bad for the environment in terms of the way they’re grown?
Pat: Oh, that’s just demonstrably garbage. It’s utter nonsense.
Dan: So really you just see these Berman attacks as a trophy more than anything?
Pat: Yeah, pretty much. I mean, I think obviously that their tactics are to spread doubt and confusion about the industries or the groups that are coming after to muddy the issues around the problems with the incumbent industries. That’s kind of their playbook from the get go. It’s expected. I mean, we knew from the get go that the incumbent industry was going to be using every resource at their disposal to try to get in our way. So, it’s not like any of this surprises us.