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The inside story of how Silicon Valley burger startup Impossible Foods is going global after its sizzling Burger King debut

The inside story of how Silicon Valley burger startup Impossible Foods is going global after its sizzling Burger King debut

To prepare for its nationwide launch next week, Impossible Foods had to change the recipe for its

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To prepare for its nationwide launch next week, Impossible Foods had to change the recipe for its “bleeding” veggie burgers.
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Courtesy Impossible Foods

When veggie burger startup Impossible Foods tried to pitch its “bleeding” patties to Burger King last year, the restaurant chain told the company it had a problem. Its system of cooking burgers – which involves broiling them over an open flame – didn’t work with the Impossible Burger. Instead of browning like a traditional meat burger, the Impossible patties crumbled and fell apart.

So Pat Brown, Impossible Foods’ founder and CEO, charged the staff at his Silicon Valley startup with creating the Impossible Burger 2.0: a second version of the patty that more closely mirrored traditional beef. While they were at it, he challenged them to make the patties juicier, healthier, cheaper to make, and even more environmentally-friendly.

That was a year and a half ago. Today, the team has surpassed every part of Brown’s request, he told Business Insider in a recent interview.

The new Impossible Burger is gluten-free, lower in fat, saturated fat, and sodium, and cheaper to make than the original. Those changes are what allowed the company to launch the first Impossible Whopper in Burger King chains in St. Louis, Missouri at the end of last month. Burger King plans to roll out the veggie option in 7,200 restaurants nationwide by the end of 2019.

“We’ve left the cow in the dust,” Brown said.

The market for a better vegetarian burger is beginning to sizzle. Rival Beyond Meat held an explosive initial public offering earlier this month. As a result, Beyond Meat’s share nearly tripled, and it’s now valued at about $3.9 billion. Impossible Burger was valued at $2 billion in a funding round this week, according to Reuters.

The St. Louis launch exposed a big challenge for the startup. Demand quickly exceeded supply, threatening to turn disappointed customers back on to traditional beef.

So starting in about a week, the first Impossible patties made with a final new ingredient – genetically-modified soy – will roll out. Brown anticipates the news could strike some customers as controversial. But he hopes it will help them meet another surge in demand when the burgers roll out at Burger Kings nationally in roughly 6 months.

“There are people who don’t like it, and they tend to be disproportionately vocal about it,” Brown said.

Here’s the inside story of how a Silicon Valley startup went from tempting Bay Area techies with the first high-end “bleeding” veggie patty to replacing meat burgers at fast-food chains like Burger King across the nation.

‘It lit a fire under our plans’

The Impossible Whopper was an instant hit last month.

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The Impossible Whopper was an instant hit last month.
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Burger King

The nation’s first Impossible Whoppers rolled out at the end of April to a network of Burger King restaurants in St. Louis, Missouri.

The city-wide launch was meant to be a test. Would burger lovers bite? Or would the meat-like patty fail to win over meat lovers in the second-largest meat-producing state in the country?

The veggie patties were a hit. The leadership at Burger King cheered, with some boasting that even they couldn’t tell the difference between the Impossible Whopper and the real thing.

The Impossible team panicked. Demand was quickly outpacing what their Oakland factory could supply.

Within days, other restaurants that had been selling the Impossible Burger had to turn customers away because they were out of the burgers.

Some burger joints tried appeasing people with an alternative: they offered the rival Beyond Burger, a veggie patty that’s also meant to taste like the real thing. But according to at least one report, customers who flocked to a restaurant that once offered the Impossible Burger left when they were informed the Beyond Burger was on the menu instead.

In other words, people didn’t want Beyond – they wanted Impossible.

No one felt the squeeze more than staff at Impossible Burger’s manufacturing plant in Oakland. According to Brown, the facility was originally designed to churn out a couple million pounds of Impossible “beef” each year.

Last year, demand started to rise. By the end of 2018, Impossible staff needed to turn out a million pounds of Impossible meat every month. Since launching across the globe in Hong Kong last year and then in Singapore this February, sales in Asia have risen more than three-fold, the company said. But in the US, the Burger King launch sent them scrambling.

“It lit a fire under our plans,” Brown told Business Insider.

To meet Burger King’s appetite, Brown started calling for volunteers. He asked staff to help pack and assemble patties in below-freezing temperatures as part of a series of temporary 12-hour shifts that kept the plant running around the clock. Some started at 3 a.m. One of the first people to heed the call was Brown’s 32-year-old daughter, who works in Impossible’s research and development department.

“We’re all in on this,” Brown said. “When we needed people to stack burger patties in the freezing cold, she signed up.”

Despite all their best efforts, though, Impossible wasn’t able to make enough patties to satisfy growing consumer appetites.

The startup raised a fresh $300 million from investors like Katy Perry and Serena Williams earlier this week, adding more celebrities to an already star-stacked lineup that includes Bill Gates and Richard Branson.

Impossible plans to use the funds to ramp up its manufacturing capabilities, Brown said. That will include hiring up to 50 new employees and adding a second production line this summer.

The company is also tweaking its recipe. The soy in the patties, which was added to replace wheat at the beginning of the year, will be sourced from American farmers who use genetic modification, Brown told Business Insider. That means the soy in the burgers will technically be a GMO.

Impossible’s shift from wheat to soy: more protein, no gluten, and one small problem

Impossible Foods recently swapped the wheat in its patties for soy. The new burgers will include soy made with genetic modification.

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Impossible Foods recently swapped the wheat in its patties for soy. The new burgers will include soy made with genetic modification.
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Courtesy Impossible Foods

If there’s a single thorny ingredient in Impossible’s new, higher-protein, lower-fat, and more broiler-friendly burger, it is its soy.

This wasn’t always the case. Impossible used to use wheat in its recipe, but consumer demand for gluten-free products – coupled with Burger King’s request for a burger that could be grilled over an open flame – led the company to swap it out for soy. As a result, the Impossible Burger 2.0 is significantly healthier than its predecessor. Customers say it tastes better too.

Still, Impossible Foods is no stranger to controversy. Last year, the company faced ire from activists and journalists who questioned the safety of a substance called heme in its patties. (Heme is the ingredient that allows the Impossible patties to “bleed” and imbues them with their beef-like flavor.)

That heme was made using genetic modification and, according to some activists, had not yet been proven safe to eat. Last summer, regulators at the Food and Drug Administration deemed heme safe, cooling off the controversy.

Starting last month on the heels of the Burger King launch, a new problem arose. This time, it had to do with the soy in their burgers.

For several months, Impossible had been contracting with a supplier to get GMO-free soy, or soy produced without genetic modification. Brown – who was once a Stanford biochemistry professor – said this was part of the company’s aim to avoid unnecessary public controversy: while there’s broad scientific consensus that GMOs are safe, some activists are vocal about the ingredients’ potential for harm.

Still, Impossible ran its own analysis and compared the ramifications of using GMO soy versus non-GMO soy on human health and the environment. As far as health, both ingredients were roughly the same, the company concluded. When it came to the environment, however, the GMO soy had a slight leg up, Brown said.

Some research suggests that GMO crops are linked with moderate reductions in soil erosion, meaning they could be less damaging for the planet overall. In addition, if Impossible chose to use only non-GMO soy, it’d have to import it roughly 6,500 miles from a supplier in Brazil, pushing loads of extra carbon into the air in the process.

There was a second component of the analysis that struck Brown in particular, however.

If his company failed to make enough of its product to go national, it could lose thousands of customers who, rather than opting for a vegetarian Impossible Whopper, might just get a regular beef burger instead.

“The worst thing we could do is limit the production of our product and not compete against the cow,” Brown said.

Impossible’s new recipe rolls out nationwide next week.

A judge has slashed the amount Monsanto has to pay in a lawsuit over a common weed-killer chemical’s cancer risk

A judge has slashed the amount Monsanto has to pay in a lawsuit over a common weed-killer chemical’s cancer risk

A woman uses a Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller spray without glyphosate in a garden in Ercuis near Paris, France.

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A woman uses a Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller spray without glyphosate in a garden in Ercuis near Paris, France.
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Benoit Tessier/Reuters
  • A jury recently ordered Monsanto to pay $289 million in damages to a plaintiff who alleged that his cancer was the result of using Roundup, the company’s popular herbicide.
  • On Wednesday, a California judge cut that amount to $49 million.
  • Neither the original trial nor the latest finding mean that glyphosate – the active ingredient in Roundup – causes cancer.
  • Instead, the jury’s ruling is based on their assertion that Monsanto intentionally kept information about Roundup’s potential risks hidden from the public.
  • The science linking glyphosate and cancer is limited at best, and experts say it’s safe.

A jury in San Francisco this summer ordered Monsanto to pay $289 million in damages to a school groundskeeper who developed cancer after years of using Roundup, the company’s popular herbicide. But on Wednesday, a California judge dealt a major blow to that decision, reducing the penalty to $49 million or about a fifth of the original amount.

Importantly, neither the trial’s original outcome – nor the latest decision – reveal anything about the science behind Roundup and cancer.

Instead, the decisions simply shed light on how a judge and members of a jury felt about whether Monsanto (which recently merged with chemical giant Bayer and announced plans to dissolve its name) intentionally kept information about Roundup’s potential harms from the public.

While the jury clearly felt Monsanto hid information, the judge in the latest ruling appeared to believe they were less at fault than originally decided. The lawsuit is just the first part of what could be a decades-long legal fight over Roundup’s chief ingredient, a chemical called glyphosate.

When it comes to the science, the evidence tying glyphosate to cancer is limited at best. Most scientists say that it is safe to use.

Could Roundup have caused someone’s cancer? Probably not.

Monsanto Co's Roundup shown for sale in California

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Monsanto Co’s Roundup shown for sale in California
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Thomson Reuters

Before developing a type of cancer known as non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the plaintiff in the recent trial, Dewayne Johnson, had used Roundup regularly in his job as a groundskeeper at a California public school. For neglecting to alert Johnson (and the rest of the public) about the potential links between Roundup and cancer, the jury ordered Monsanto to pay Johnson $39 million to cover his medical bills, pain, and suffering, plus an additional $250 million for punitive damages (or punishment).

But as for whether Roundup could actually have been the sole or even primary cause of an individual’s cancer, the research leans heavily toward “no.”

The scare over a potential link between Roundup and cancer appears to have begun with a now widely-criticized statement put out by a World Health Organization group known as the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2015.

That year, the IARC put glyphosate – Roundup’s active ingredient – in a cancer-risk category one level below widely-recognized harmful activities like smoking. But several researchers have said the IARC’s determination was bogus because there is no evidence that glyphosate causes cancer. In fact, a lengthy review found that the IARC had edited out portions of the documents they used to review glyphosate to make the chemical look far more harmful than its own research had concluded.

During the latest court case, Monsanto attempted to counter plaintiff Johnson’s claims that Roundup caused his cancer using extensive testimony from expert witnesses. They pointed out that the evidence definitively linking the glyphosate in Roundup to cancer is scant. More broadly, figuring out what caused one individual’s cancer is a tricky business for any scientist – a point several experts have made since the most recent Monsanto verdict came out last week.

“This verdict is just the first in what could be a long legal battle over Roundup, and proving causality in such cases is not easy,” Richard Stevens, a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine who specializes in cancer and its causes, wrote in a recent post for The Conversation.

New research could change the controversial classification of glyphosate

The IARC’s 2015 statement is not final.

“The agency has often changed its classification of an agent based on new evidence after initial evaluation,” Stevens wrote. “Sometimes it has become more certain that the agent poses a hazard, but in other cases it has downgraded the hazard.”

Based on new studies (typically in mice), glyphosate could go from its current status – where some people see it as a potential cancer risk – to being recognized as having a very low risk for harm.

Several studies of glyphosate and cancer are ongoing, and more are coming out each year. Just last year, a review of studies looking at the ties between glyphosate and cancer concluded that in the low amounts of that people are actually exposed to, glyphosate “do[es] not represent a public concern.”

Conversely, the new evidence could come out strongly against glyphosate and suggest that it’s incredibly harmful. As Stevens points out, new evidence dramatically changed the public perception of another popular product which was initially labeled cancerous – a zero-calorie sweetener called saccharin, which is sold under the brand name Sweet’ N Low.

In the 1980s, any product containing the sweetener was required to carry a warning label saying that it was “determined to cause cancer.” But the science was flawed: the rats that had been used in the studies were especially prone to bladder cancer, and the findings did not apply to people. So in 2016, the sweetener was removed from a list of cancer-causing ingredients.

But glyphosate’s status remains to be seen. For now, the court cases merely reflect the determinations of juries and judges – not the conclusions of the majority of scientific experts.

Curious Cook: A modern food story – Part 3

Curious Cook: A modern food story – Part 3

Airline food

New Zealand’s Deputy Prime Minister (then Acting PM) complained recently about a burger on his national airline. The burger is the Impossible Burger, a moist, meaty-tasting burger made entirely from vegetarian products and has the ability to “bleed” like real ground beef – in blind tastings, several professional cooks have confirmed it tastes better than real burgers.

Closer to home, France recently legislated against vegetarian foods being sold as “burgers” or “sausages”, even if they are shaped like burgers and sausages.

These are examples of governments pandering to their huge livestock industries, and they are blowing against the wind. New vegetarian foods which simulate meat, packed with flavour and nutrition, produced with technology unheard of even 15 years ago, are the future of food. It is certain we will see supermarkets selling these ultra-modern foods (UMF) in huge quantities once the food industry manages to reduce cost of production.

Cost

A good UMF burger currently costs around 50% to 100% more than a comparable premium beef burger. This sounds expensive but the original gluten-free loaves used to cost three times (300%) the price of normal bread, and they tasted like flip-flops.

However, the real cost of the beef burger is much higher – and you do not get charged money for it because this cost is not counted in terms of money, and everybody in the world is forced to pay for meat. More on this later.

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Technology

The production of UMFs uses some of the latest food technologies available, including genetic engineering, to recreate the textures, flavours and characteristics of real meat. Although most of these techniques are proprietary, researching around the subject indicates that UMFs use plant proteins from grains, root vegetables, beans, fungi and other non-meat sources to simulate the textures and taste of meat.

The curious red juice or “blood” which oozes from some UMFs can be modified beetroot or other vegetable juices, or in at least one case, made from genetically-modified (GMO) yeast which synthesises a close relative of myoglobin (the red juice of meat) called leghemoglobin which is normally found in the roots of soy plants.

GMO

Although some might recoil at eating GMO food, there is one important difference between genetically synthesising taste compounds and synthesising compounds used for pest control. For example, the anthrax-related insect-killing Bt-toxin found in GMO corn is introduced by splicing bacterial genes from bacillus thuringiensis into corn DNA so that corn plants themselves produce Bt-toxin even more efficiently than bacillus thuringiensis. If you are curious, please read “The verdict’s still out on genetically modified food”.

For UMFs, genetic engineering is applied to prolific organisms such as yeast to induce the production of isomers of non-toxic taste compounds. This is much the same technology used in the manufacture of medical insulin. As there is no replication of toxic compounds involved, no health concerns are presented. These GMO compounds are then used to add flavours/textures to UMFs.

Taste

Taste is probably the most critical factor in the acceptability of UMFs, and technology may have solved this complicated issue. Standard vegetarian ingredients are treated using non-standard techniques (eg. enzymatic reactions, fermentation, dessication and reconstitution, etc) to alter textures, taste profiles – and in some cases even chemical compositions. The results are new ingredients which taste remarkably like animal proteins, with nutrition profiles roughly comparable to meats.

As an aside, a reason raw meat “bleeds” is because of the heme in myoglobin, the red liquid in meats people often confuse with blood. This iron-based compound makes myoglobin reddish and this colour is often taken as a sign of tenderness and freshness. Cooking changes the colour of myoglobin to beige. However, the taste of meat is the summation of several hundred different compounds – and oxidation/spoilage of some of these compounds leads to a loss of taste in meat. Hence, although vegetarian substitutes of myoglobin such as leghemoglobin may lead to a better visual perception, the actual reason why many UMFs taste great is simply because they contain complex compounds carefully engineered to simulate the taste of meat. These compounds, being plant-based, are less likely to spoil easily – therefore UMFs can stay fresh and tastier for longer as they do not oxidise as quickly as meat.

Why?

There are several good reasons UMFs should be adopted to replace animal-based proteins.

For a start, the production of meat is appallingly inefficient. For every 1,000 calories fed to a cow, we get back only 30 calories of meat, a loss of 97% of the original energy provided. This is comparable to using a 100W bulb and getting the output of an imperceptible 3W toy light.

Another reason is environmental. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation estimated in 2013 each kilo of beef generates up to 1,000kg of greenhouse gases (GHG). But according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, each kilo of beef produces 295kg of GHG – so let us take the lower number. In the US where on average everyone eats 26kg of beef a year, almost 2.5 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases are caused by 325 million Americans alone. Over 55% of all agricultural land is now used for producing animal feed. As demand for meat presently still seems to be growing globally, the environmental toll can only increase. This is the hidden cost of meat mentioned earlier – we do not pay for this cost in monetary terms, but eventually our descendants will pay for our meat today. More at “Vegetarianism and other dietary tales – Part 5”.

The Impossible Burger. Could meatless burgers be better for us than packaged meats? Photo: impossiblefoods.com

Why not?

If we can accept that sausages, burgers and packaged meats are not actually real meat, and in some cases mostly animal by-products, it is only a small step to recognising that if something tastes just as good, then it may be safer and healthier to eat the alternative option. You will also avoid eating additives such as antibiotics, growth hormones, artificial conditioners, colours and preservatives. I would also add pesticides as food grown for animal consumption do not meet the same standards as for humans.

So for people on the Carnivore Diet, it actually makes more sense to follow a diet based on UMFs, especially as research indicates excessive eating of animal protein significantly reduces lifespans.

Shrimp eyes

We all know about the appalling conditions of most animals reared for meat, but it seems we still do not know enough. Some cattle are injected with papain (a powerful papaya-based enzyme for tenderising meat) prior to being slaughtered. Female shrimp have their eyes physically cut out to encourage them to breed faster, in a process called eyestalk ablation – and then they are thrown back into (usually) filthy pools. Hens have their beaks burnt off to stop them hurting each other in (extremely) crowded farms. All this is done to sell more animal protein, when new modern food technologies are available to eliminate such incredible cruelty.

Maillard reaction

Since UMFs are also proteins (ie, chains of amino acids), cooking them can utilise the same techniques as with meats. Include some simple sugars, heat above 135°C on a pan and UMF proteins will brown and create Maillard compounds just as for meats. In fairness, the taste is often different but this can be mitigated by using small quantities of meat at the browning stage of cooking. A simple trick is to brown a little organic minced meat in a hot pan before adding UMF proteins when making a stew – the taste difference is negligible, even to a fussy meat-lover such as myself.

For details, please read “The Maillard reaction”.

Nutrition

It is often suggested that plant protein is somehow inferior to animal protein. There is absolutely no basis for this claim in modern society – in fact there are no known incidents in the EU for protein-deficiency diseases such as marasmus and kwashiorkor despite several countries having 9% (or more) of the population as vegetarians.

Having a wholly non-meat diet may raise only one major issue: Vitamin B12.

A normal human body requires 2.4 micrograms of vitamin B12 every day, which is an important nutrient used in red blood cells, DNA, repairing nerve cells and other functions. Vegetables do not have this vitamin, and the body cannot manufacture it – hence it must come from the diet. Although commonly found in meats, vitamin B12 can also be found in fortified breads and cereals, along with cheeses and eggs.

Health, anyone?

Perhaps the best aspect of UMFs (apart from tasting good) is that they are also inherently healthier and more convenient than meat. There is often no need to add greens to UMF-based meals as fibre is usually automatically included. They reduce the dispersal of pathogens (toxic bacteria) around the kitchen, stay fresh longer and retain nutrition better. It is also important to acknowledge that meat has also changed its profiles over the decades – for example, modern battery chickens would be considered freakish mutants less than 75 years ago: “The story of a superchicken”.

Flexitarian

However, there is no need to drop meat completely, as people can elect to be flexitarians, and enjoy the widest range of foods available via the latest technologies while reducing our ecological footprint by cutting unnecessary meat consumption. If Americans can cut beef consumption to 15kg annually instead of 26kg, that alone can eliminate over one billion tonnes of greenhouse gases.


Curious Cook appears on the second and fourth Sunday of the month.
After a $66 billion merger, Monsanto is disappearing — sort of

After a $66 billion merger, Monsanto is disappearing — sort of

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Jim Young/Reuters
  • The German drugmaker and chemical company Bayer has finalized a $66 billion blockbuster deal to gobble up the agricultural behemoth Monsanto.
  • On Monday, Bayer said it would drop Monsanto’s 117-year-old title.
  • The name drop appears to be part of a strategic move geared at distancing the colossal new company from negative publicity surrounding Monsanto and genetically modified organisms.

The German drugmaker and chemical company Bayer has finalized a $66 billion blockbuster deal to gobble up the agricultural giant Monsanto.

In a statement on Monday, Bayer said it planned to drop Monsanto’s 117-year-old title and would henceforth be known only as Bayer.

“Bayer will remain the company name. Monsanto will no longer be a company name,” the company said. “The acquired products will retain their brand names and become part of the Bayer portfolio.”

The name drop appears to be part of a strategic move geared at distancing the new behemoth from negative publicity surrounding Monsanto and genetically modified organisms.

First announced in September 2016 as part of a move designed to boost agricultural research and innovation, the merger is the largest acquisition in Bayer’s history and doubles the size of its farm business.

Distancing itself from the Monsanto label

FILE PHOTO: Monsanto's research farm is pictured near Carman, Manitoba, Canada on August 3, 2017. REUTERS/Zachary Prong/File Photo

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Thomson Reuters

You can’t utter the name Monsanto in public and not be met with at least one stink eye.

For decades, the company has been met with public outrage and disgust linked to its history of controversial dealings with farmers and its standout role in popularizing GMOs. This spring, Monsanto landed a spot on a well-known list of the 20 most hated companies in America.

The decision to drop the Monsanto moniker, then, is no huge surprise.

On a call with reporters on Monday, Liam Condon, the head of Bayer’s crop-science division, said Monsanto had “actually itself considered changing its name” at one time, but elected “not to do that, apparently for cost reasons.”

Still, Condon said, “it was an issue for some time for Monsanto management … to try to improve the Monsanto brand.”

“We’re extremely proud of all we’ve accomplished as Monsanto and are eager to continue to accelerate innovation in agriculture as we look forward to a future under Bayer,” Christi Dixon, Monsanto’s public-relations lead, said in a statement to Business Insider. She added that in the interim, while Monsanto operates independently of Bayer, “it will be business as usual for us, including our company name.”

Monsanto is also moving to invest more deeply in advanced tools for gene editing, a process that can be capitalized on for agricultural purposes to make cheaper but higher-quality produce. Many companies are moving away from tweaking crops’ DNA with GMOs and other crude methods of genetic modification in favor of more precise techniques like Crispr.

In March, Monsanto put $125 million behind the gene-editing startup Pairwise, a company whose founder, Haven Baker, told Business Insider he aimed to bring the first fruit tweaked with Crispr to grocery-store shelves – a development he expects in five to 10 years. Tom Adams, who was Monsanto’s vice president of global biotechnology, left to become the CEO of Pairwise this spring.

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