By David Burrows
The fast-paced development of laboratory-grown meat could mean poultry producers face a very different future – if consumers have an appetite for it.
The world was given its first glimpse of a lab-grown burger in August 2013. Assembled from 10,000 small strips of muscle, the resulting patty was “close to meat, but not that juicy”, according to Hanni Ruetzler, one of two food critics lucky enough to do the taste test during a news conference in London. It was a ‘good start’ according to the developer, MosaMeat.
Four-and-a-half years on and funding is now in place to make the final push. “Three years from today … we’ll be ready to go,” says CEO Peter Verstrate. The plan is to sell the burger in high-end restaurants. “It’s small scale, premium and local,” he adds. “It’s more of a statement than a commercial venture.”
MosaMeat is just one of a number of companies racing to bring cultured meat to the market – that is, meat grown in petri dishes rather than reared on pastures. It’s worth noting that this is very different from the plant-based alternatives generating a lot of media attention currently – like the Impossible Burger. This isn’t mimicking meat; this is meat. Essentially, there are two stages to the growing process: the first is the proliferation phase, in which cells divide and multiply to increase in mass, and the second is the differentiation or maturation phase, during which cells transition from proliferative cells into the desired final cell types (muscle fibres, fat cells and so on).
No production-scale or even pilot-scale facilities yet exist for cultured meat, but according to the Good Food Institute (GFI) – which works with scientists, investors and entrepreneurs developing alternatives to livestock products – there are nearly a dozen start-up companies working in this space. “The prototypes are incredibly compelling,” says Liz Specht, senior scientist at the GFI. “A lot of progress has been made on structuring cultured meat. The work now is to ramp up production of those products to capture economies of scale, while continuing to develop the technologies to produce the structure of meats like marbled steak.”
Specht says it is simply a matter of time before the technology enables producers to scale to a point that they can produce meaningful quantities of meat at reasonable price points. To date, price and scalability have been the major challenges. MosaMeat’s initial offering cost a reported £215,000, but now it’s apparently down to under £8. That’s still about four times the price of traditional ground beef, but it is very much game on. “There’s going to be a point in time where consumers have a choice,” says Verstrate. “There are two products in front of you: they are the same apart from the fact that for one of them you need to kill animals and the other you don’t.”
Where the red meat sector led, the poultry sector is in hot pursuit. Just under a year ago, San Francisco-based Memphis Meats announced production of “the world’s first cultured poultry”, including chicken and duck. It was “an historic moment” for the cultured meat movement, said the company’s cofounder and CEO Uma Valeti at the time. Like Verstrate, he’s targeted 2021 as the date to get products on shelves and tables. To do that, they need to work out how to avoid using fetal bovine serum (FBS) in the process.
Bruce Friedrich, co-founder of the GFI, feels it is the one critique that makes any sense, but insists that commercial cultured meat will be FBS-free. It is expensive, inconsistent and in limited supply (if mass production of cultured meat is the goal), he explains. “The benefits to our environment, to food security, to human health, and to animals, are incalculable,” he adds.
Cultured meat would certainly have a much smaller environmental footprint than traditionally reared livestock. A study by experts at the Universities of Oxford and Amsterdam in 2011 compared cultured meat with European pork, beef, sheep and poultry. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, land use, energy consumption and water footprint the lab meat won hands down in all but one test – poultry production used less energy than cultured chicken.
There is also evidence that shelf life could be stretched, which means less food waste – while saturated fat can be taken out and nutrients can be put in, antibiotics are not required and disease pathogens are not present. “These are all marketable attributes,” says Claudia Tarry, from plant-based food development agency, PB2B. Given what’s going on at Two Sisters and Russell Hume, not to mention food security, Brexit and the spectre of chlorine-washed chicken, this is, perhaps, a serendipitous time to promote alternatives to traditional meat.
But will consumers want to eat meat grown in a laboratory? Or is the whole point of meat that it’s a natural product, raised by farmers on the land? It’s been a popular polling question. And it seems for most consumers, the idea of lab grown meat is just too outlandish to contemplate. Responses need to be taken with a pinch of salt given that there are no cultured meat products available on the market – yet. In 2005, the European Commission asked the public whether growing meat from cell cultures was a concept they would approve of: 54% said never (in a list of 22 new technologies, only cloning of human beings so couples with a genetic disease could become parents was seen as less favourable).
More recently, in February 2014, a survey in the US by the Pew Research Center showed 78% of consumers didn’t want to eat meat grown in a laboratory. One in five (20%) said they would. A more recent Mintel study found that more than a quarter (28%) found the idea of lab-meat “disgusting”, while 19% felt it was “dangerous”. “The more consumers become aware of cultured meat and are educated about its benefits — particularly its direct benefits to the consumer, such as longer shelf life and decreased risk of foodborne illness — the more the demand for cultured meat will grow,” adds GFI’s Specht.
Despite all the negative feedback from consumers, it seems Investors are finding the concept increasingly compelling. London-based food-tech advisor Niccolo Manzoni says there’s a lot of capital available for financing early stage companies working in the alternative protein space – especially in the US, where it’s easier to scale a product. That perhaps explains why, when it comes to demonstrated product yield and investment raised to date, Memphis Meats is among the frontrunners.
In August 2017, the company closed its Series A funding round with lead investor DFJ, which has also backed companies like Tesla and SpaceX. There was an additional investment from food production and agriculture giant Cargill. It was the first publicly disclosed investment of a conventional meat producer in the cultured meat field. It won’t be the last, says Specht: “Many of the largest players in the livestock industry recognise this not as a threat but as an opportunity.”
Indeed, more and more meat companies are now referring to themselves as protein companies. “They are supplying what the consumer wants, which is high-quality, safe meat,” she adds. “If they can produce it in a way that decreases the environmental footprint and eliminates negative press associated with animal welfare concerns – which is increasingly important in the public consciousness – then all the better for meat companies.”
Should farmers and processors be concerned? Not according to Sonya Roberts, president of growth ventures at Cargill Protein. “We know global demand for protein continues to grow for numerous reasons, including the fact that a significant number of people around the world are moving into the middle class and eating more protein,” she says. “As the population tops nine billion by 2050, we will need all forms of protein to nourish the world’s population and it is estimated global food production will need to increase by 70%.”
As such, the investments being made in alternatives are “complementary to our broader protein portfolio”, says Roberts, who highlights the $850m invested in the past two years in the company’s existing meat business in North America. Cultured meat will also require livestock, of course, just a lot less of it.
Cargill isn’t the only meat behemoth keen to put its eggs in different baskets. Already this year, two other significant deals have taken place between ‘new meat’ and ‘old meat’. On January 2, SuperMeat, an Israeli food-tech start-up developing lab-grown poultry, announced a “strategic partnership” with PHW, one of Europe’s largest poultry producers.
Three weeks later, Tyson Foods announced that it had invested in Memphis Meats. “For the first time, we’re replacing meat with meat – not a meat alternative,” Valeti told Forbes. “That gets Tyson and Cargill enormously excited because they’re in the meat business. “There’s the potential to transform feeding the world as we know it.”