Moo-over Burger King, Israel's Had Meatless Burgers Far Before You Entered the Game

Burger King will be offering a high-tech meatless version of its Whopper at 100 locations, a year after Israel developed its own fake meat

FILE Photo: An 'Impossible Whopper' sits on a table at a Burger King restaurant in Missouri, April 1, 2019.
AFP

The U.S. fast food company Burger King made hamburger history this month when it announced it would be testing a meatless version of its Whopper using a high-tech recipe that gives artificial patties the look and feel of real beef.

For now, Burger King’s Impossible Whopper will be offered at 59 St. Louis locations and not at its restaurants in Israel. But the fact is that Israel is already home to a thriving meatless meat market.

That should come as no surprise: A survey taken for TheMarker by the market research firm Geocartography found that 6.5% of respondents said they were vegetarian and another 3% vegan. That compares with 5% and 3%, respectively, for Americans. Many meat-eaters have also cut back on their meat eating.

The Burger King meatless hamburger is being made by a Silicon Valley-based company called Impossible Foods, which genetically engineers heme – a protein that makes its burger taste and smell like meat. Its patties ooze with red juices that make it look like a real piece of beef.

The Impossible Burger is already sold in more than 5,000 restaurants, but if Burger King takes it nationwide, it would more than double its footprint.

Burger King said it had considered a rival ersatz burger developed and manufactured by another company called Beyond Meat, but chose Impossible Foods for the taste, brand recognition and price.

In Israel, however, it’s the Beyond Meat burger that’s conquered the market. The company reached an agreement with local importer Kaya a year ago and the first of the burgers reached menus at the Tel Aviv vegan chef restaurant Zakaim.

Today, Beyond Meat’s burger is available at about 100 Israeli restaurants, which sell about 1,000 of them a day. The restaurants include them BBB, the vegetarian restaurant Goodness and Susu & Sons. Zakaim alone received no fewer than 100 orders a day for the burgers.

“A little more than a year ago [Kaya co-CEO Adi] Richter gave me one to taste and it was fantastic,” said Oren Hazan, Zakaim’s owner. “I had worked before at a meat restaurant, and the minute I tasted the Beyond Burger I realized it was a revolution. It’s flavor is close to the real thing.” Hazan said the hamburger was even winning praises from meat eaters.

Many Israelis are vegetarians but hamburgers are a big business: Hamburger restaurants had a combined turnover of between 2 billion and 2.5 billion shekels ($560 million-$700 million) in 2017. That’s about 12% of the country’s entire restaurant turnover, not counting the value-added tax.

But you can’t find meatless burgers of this kind in Israeli supermarkets and that is due to a combination of reasons involving bureaucracy and price. Israel’s Health Ministry hasn’t yet given its approval nor have kashrut authorities.

“We’re working right now on packaging issues to meet the standards required by the Health Ministry,” said Richter.

In any event, Shufer-Sal, Israel’s biggest supermarket chain, took at look at the Beyond Burger but decided against carrying its 248 stores due to the price. It would cost the consumer a steep 17-20 shekels per burger, compared with between 5 and 6 shekels for an ordinary vegetarian burger and even less for the lowest-cost meat burger.

The discount grocer Rami Levy is still in talks with Kaya and said the minute it gets Health Ministry approval, the food retailer is ready to put it on its store shelves. The chain’s founder and controlling shareholder, Rami Levy himself, said rising demand for vegetarian products means price is less of an issue.

“The price is a little high right now, but I’m going to ask them to lower it,” he said. “I believe it’s just a matter of time before it enters the Israeli market on a big scale and then the price will fall on its own.”

Meanwhile, Israel’s Startup Nation is getting into the meatless game. The demand for such products is huge, not only because of growing awareness of the health costs of eating a lot of meat but also the environmental damage that the meat-processing industry causes.

“Vegetarian substitutes have been around for 30 years, but the difference now is the money from Silicon Valley and the introduction of technology that has enabled a significant improvement in the products, for example hemoglobin in a plant form,” said Jonathan Berger, the aptly named CEO of the food-technology incubator The Kitchen.

Located in the port city of Ashdod and jointly operated by the Israeli food maker Strauss and the Israel Innovation Authority, The Kitchen is home to 12 food-tech startups. They include two focused on meatless meat.

The first is Aleph Farms, whose technology takes a sample of animal cells from a real cow and replicates them outside of the animal. It’s test tube meat is the first ever to be grown outside an animal that has a muscle-like texture similar to conventional meat.

The other is Rilbite, which uses raw, unprocessed ingredients to create “ground plants” as a ground meat alternative. The company is seeking to build its first factory in Israel within the next six months and to begin exporting products by the end of 2019.