Fresh from its $10 million capital raise chicken-free chicken maker Sunfed is readying a new product: bull-free beef - and it says Air New Zealand should adopt it.

There's a problem, however.

Our national carrier already has a beef substitute on its menu: the Impossible Burger, from American company Impossible Foods, bankrolled by Bill Gates.

Air New Zealand added the Impossible Burger to its LA-Auckland flights in July as one of three main course options for business class passengers.


The move brought jabs from National agriculture spokesman Nathan Guy, who tweeted, "Disappointing to see Air NZ promoting a GE substitute meat burger on its flights to the USA. We produce the most delicious steaks & lamb on the planet - GMO & hormone free. The national carrier should be pushing our premium products and helping sell NZ to the world."

Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters weighed in that his party was "utterly opposed to fake beef". As a national airline, built by and bailed out by the taxpayer, Air NZ should be supporting the local red meat industry, the NZ First leader said.

Sunfed co-founder and chief executive Shama Lee also criticises Air NZ, but from a different angle.

She says the airline was "innovative and ahead of the curve" for seeking out a meat-free, beef-substitute burger.

But she's not so happy about its choosing the American-made Impossible Burger over her own company's chicken-free chicken, and she also takes aim at the US product's ingredients.

"As a Kiwi, I think Air New Zealand is a very premium brand and to align yourself with a product that not only has GMO [genetically modified organisms] but is gluten-based didn't seem like the right fit," she tells the Herald. (Impossible Foods readily acknowledges its burgers contain gluten. The GMO issue is more contentious.)

Lee hopes the airline will reconsider its options when Sunfed's Bull-free beef is released in February.

"There have already been conversations," she says in a reference to Sunfed customers taking up her company's cause with posts to Air NZ's Facebook page.


She hopes there can now be more formal dialogue.

The Impossible Burger, currently being served on Air New Zealand's San Francisco to Auckland flights following a contentious July to October trial on its LA to Auckland route. Photo / Jamie Morton.
The Impossible Burger, currently being served on Air New Zealand's San Francisco to Auckland flights following a contentious July to October trial on its LA to Auckland route. Photo / Jamie Morton.

A spokeswoman for Air NZ said, "To our knowledge, we've not been approached by Sunfed but we're always open to hearing from potential suppliers about their products."

The spokeswoman also defended the airline's decision to adopt the Impossible Burger, saying, "We had been following Impossible Foods for some time and had been impressed with the work it's doing and saw an opportunity to work together and take the burger to the skies for the first time.

"Impossible Foods, which produces the Impossible Burger, complies with all US Food and Drug Administration regulations and has conducted rigorous testing of its product."

The Auckland-LA Impossible Burger trial wrapped up as scheduled at the end of October.

A second phase of the trial is now underway, with the Impossible Burger being served as a slider in the Business Premier cabin for San Francisco to Auckland flights (read more about the potato starch and soybean-based Impossible Burger's ingredients and Jamie Morton's taste test here.

Sunfed's Lee says the bull-free beef launch in February will be followed up by a "bacon" product later in the year.

She says the $10m raised last month will be used primarily to scale up production ready for a push across the Tasman, but ultimately she wants to go global.

Sunfed's product is made from yellow peas, which are high in fibre and potassium. The product contains other ingredients: water, rice bran oil, pea fibre, pumpkin powder, natural yeast extract and maize starch.

Lee says the tricky bit lies in developing a meat-like feel for Sunfed's base product.

"Once you get the texture of meat you can do any flavour. Making 'chicken', 'beef', 'pork' or 'fish' is just a natural extension of that.

Lee won't comment on sales or financials but notes that Sunfed "Went straight into the mainstream," signing up our two major supermarket chains from the get-go, plus wholesaler Gimours and BP stations.

And she says the $10m Series A raise would not have been possible unless Chicken-Free Chicken was flying off the shelves.

The $10m round (which came on top of an earlier $1.5m seed round) included investments from Sir Stephen Tindall's ubiquitous K1W1 fund (which now owns 5 per cent of Sunfed) and the taxpayer - via the Crown-backed New Zealand Venture Investment Fund, which now owns 1.4 per cent.

But it was led by Australian venture capital fund Blackbird Ventures, which now holds an 11 per cent stake (Sunfed co-founders Shama and Hayden Lee remain the largest shareholders with a combined 58 per cent stake).

Lee says as well as providing capital, Blackbird Venture partner Samantha Wong is opening doors for discussions with Australian retailers and wholesalers - although Sunfed isn't ready to any Aussie deals just yet.