Is the world ready for meat made from animal cells?
Food startups and entrepreneurs working on alternatives to traditional meat have taken two paths in recent years, one that has taken off and grown exponentially and another that’s taking much longer to get going.
Plant-based companies have filled the market with an ever-growing number of alternatives that use protein from a variety of plants to create products that increasingly come closer in taste, texture and mouthfeel to the animal products they’re made to replace.
Meanwhile, startups making meat from actual animal cells have been building buzz for years and trying on and discarding labels including lab-grown and cell-based in favor of cultured and cultivated, but just one company thus far has actually brought a product to market.
Unlike plant-based alternatives, cultured meat is derived from animals, but without the need for slaughtering them. Instead, companies take cells from cows, pigs, chickens and other animals and use a culturing medium to grow the cells into meat.
The Good Food Institute, a nonprofit created to foster both the plant-based and cultured meat industries, defines cultured meat as meat “[P]roduced from a small sample of animal cells grown in a tank called a cultivator, which provides warmth and the water, proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals needed to grow muscle. The result is meat, poultry, and fish that looks, tastes, and cooks the same as the traditional version.”
In addition to the challenges in developing and scaling the technology needed to affordably produce cultured meat on a mass scale, companies must also wait for regulatory frameworks to catch up with science before they can start selling their products.
Singapore was first
That happened in Singapore late last year, when plant-based JUST Egg maker Just Food won the world’s first regulatory approval to start selling cultured chicken. The rigorous regulatory approval process took two years and required the company to share detailed information on every step in the manufacturing process, Eat Just CEO Josh Tetrick said.
Soon after the approval was granted, the company announced the product would go on the menu at a Singapore restaurant called 1880. The company launched the cultured meat product under a new brand, GOOD Meat, to differentiate the cell-based product from its plant-based products.
The approval in Singapore was game changing for the fledgling industry but it was also just a first step in what GOOD Meat and other cultured meat ventures believe will be worldwide acceptance and ultimately demand for familiar meats produced without the need for large-scale animal agriculture.
The Good Food Institute is urging the Biden administration to invest in both plant-based and cell-based meat research as part of its efforts to create new green jobs, strengthen the food supply and grow the economy.
“Studies show that every dollar spent on agricultural research generates 20 dollars in economic activity,” the group said in a statement. “Given the right incentives, alternative protein production facilities similar to craft beer breweries will open in rural, semi-rural, and urban areas. This widely distributed production and supply network will create opportunities for Black, Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and Native American workers in farming and food production and keep money flowing through local economies.”
Building the industries would also make the country’s food supply less susceptible to disruptions from disease and natural disasters, the statement says.
Unlike some companies that were created solely to develop and market cultured meat, Eat Just developed plant-based products first, including JUST Mayo and JUST Egg, which brought in revenue to fund the company’s growth and innovation. Those plant-based efforts remain a focus -- just recently the company said its JUST Egg was replacing chicken eggs on the menu at more than 500 units of quickserve chain Dicos in China.
Cultured meat investment on the rise
Most in the industry are pure-play cultured meat startups. For them, venture capital investments have been key, and those investments have been on the rise in recent years as the products come closer to being commercially viable.
Investors put $166 million into cultured meat ventures in 58 investment rounds between 2016 and 2019, according to a GFI report.
Some other companies have been making news about their cultured meat efforts longer than Eat Just, including Netherlands-based Mosa Meat, which launched in 2013 with backing from Google co-founder Sergey Brin to develop cultured beef. Last year, Mosa more than doubled its staff from 30 to 62 and raised $75 million in a Series B funding round that the company will use to scale production and introduce its first burgers to the market.
A key part of making cultured meats affordable when they hit the market is reducing the high costs of the medium that the cells are cultured in. Mosa reported that it has reduced the cost by 88 times even as it worked to create a completely plant-based medium to replace animal-derived fetal bovine serum.
US-based Memphis Meats has raised more than $180 million to date, including $161 million in a new round in early 2020 from a group of investors that included Bill Gates and Richard Branson. The company, which unveiled its first cell-based meatball and cultured chicken products in 2016 and 2017 respectively, also plans to use new funding to scale production and get products to market.
While the hope of the cultured meat industry is that Singapore’s approval of GOOD Meat’s launch could start a trend in other countries taking similar moves, regulatory actions have thus far been slow in coming. In recent years the Food and Drug Administration and the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service have created a framework for which agencies will have responsibility for regulating the safety of which cell-based meat segments, but thus far no companies have won approval to sell their products in the US.
Another startup, Israel-based Aleph Farms, announced last month that it has partnered with Mitsubishi to prepare to take its cultured meat steaks to market in Japan, with plans for a launch in 2022. Two others, BlueNalu and Finless Foods, are creating seafood from cells.
While plant-based meat alternatives from companies like Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, Tofurky and a growing roster of startups and established companies are designed to appeal to consumers who are looking to leave animal products off their plates at some or all of their meals, there’s a different target audience for cultured meat.
New products like GOOD Meat’s chicken aren’t made to win over vegetarians or vegans, but to provide committed meat eaters with an alternative that’s better for animals and the planet.
Eat Just’s mission is to take both the plant-based and cultured meat paths to create a more sustainable food supply for the future, Tetrick says.
His company’s goals are in line with GFI’s.
“A new space race for the future of food is underway,” GFI Executive Director Bruce Friedrich said at the time of Eat Just’s announcement. “As nations race to divorce meat production from industrial animal agriculture, countries that delay their investment in this bright food future risk getting left behind. The government that manages to divorce meat production from the need for living animals is going to have bragging rights until the end of time.”