The maker of vegan mayonnaise has been working on getting lab-made meat onto dinner tables everywhere. It’s just that nobody knew about it.
Hampton Creek—a company that built its name on plant-based condiments and vegan-friendly cookie doughs—today revealed that, for the last year, it has been secretly developing the technology necessary for producing lab-made meat and seafood, or as the industry likes to call it, “clean meat.” Perhaps even more surprising is that Hampton Creek expects to beat its closest competitor to market by more than two years.
“By the end of next year, we’ll have something out there on the marketplace,” Josh Tetrick, CEO of the company, tells Quartz. Until now, only one of the handful of global startups developing “clean meat,” Memphis Meats, has openly talked about getting a product to market and that was by 2021.
Since it was founded in 2015, Memphis Meats has raised at least $3 million from five investors for the development of its meat products, according to Crunchbase. By contrast, Hampton Creek—just a 20-mile drive from its Silicon Valley rival—has raised more than $120 million since 2011. It’s one of Silicon Valley’s unicorns—a company that has a valuation that exceeds $1 billion.
“The fact that Hampton Creek has so many resources at its fingertips is very promising for speeding up the commercialization of clean meat,” says Paul Shapiro, the author of a forthcoming book on meat alternatives and vice president of policy at the Humane Society of the United States.
Now that Hampton Creek has unveiled itself as the latest entrant in that space, competition to reach consumers first will heat up. And once these products do get to supermarkets, it will open the door for a three-way battle for meat-eater dollars, as consumers will have a choice between three different products:
- Traditional meat, from animals that were raised, slaughtered, and processed.
- Plant-based meats, made from plant proteins (including heme) to mimic the look, texture, and taste of traditional meat.
- And lab-grown meat, which is being developed in industrial vats to look, feel, and taste like traditional meat and have the same molecular make-up.
In the eyes of the people pushing the development of plant-based and clean meat products, this new crop of foods will revolutionize how meat is made and offer a clear path to feeding people across the globe in a way that emits less greenhouse gas and ends animal suffering.
“Once we have clean meat that is cost-competitive with animal-based meat, that will be the beginning of the end of all the harms of industrial agriculture,” says Bruce Friedrich, who leads the Good Food Institute, which supports and lobbies on behalf of meat alternative companies.
Earlier this month, Beyond Meat made headlines when it announced its plant-based burger patties would be stocked alongside animal products in meat cases at more than 200 Safeway grocery stores. Until then, it was sold mostly in the meat sections at Whole Foods Market locations. Getting into a mainstream supermarket chain was a significant step for the company, and a testament to the tenacity of Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown, who’d spent years trying to convince grocery chains to carry his product.
Hampton Creek already sells its vegan condiments and cookie doughs at Walmart, Whole Foods, and other major chains, something that will assist the company as it attempts to get its ‘clean meat’ products into mainstream stores. “That will be very helpful, as opposed to starting all these relationships from scratch,” Tetrick says. “We happen to already be there—and not just in retail, but also in food service.”
With that kind of entree into the consumer market, Tetrick says he also expects large traditional meat companies will potentially want to become significant investors. ”We’re talking to a number of them right now all across the world,” he says. “I’d expect one or two of these partnerships to cross the finish line [soon].”
More money and product demand means it won’t be long before Hampton Creek looks to expand, adding to its already large, 59-person research and development division. The company says it will be looking to add chemists, tissue engineers, stem cell biologists, and more.
It will need them, because one of the biggest reasons it’s so hard to get lab-made meat to market is because it’s really difficult to affordably make enough product to meet demand. Just a pound of clean meat—grown inside high-tech industrial vats—can easily cost thousands of dollars. A pound of lab-made beef would have cost $1.2 million per pound to sell in 2013. In four years, the price of lab-grown meat has fallen by 99%—but it’s still higher than your usual animal-reared meat.
That’s partially because it’s tough to get a steady supply of one particular ingredient: fetal bovine serum, which is blood extracted from the fetuses of pregnant cows.
Until now, scientists working on clean meat have depended upon having access to that serum. Once it’s added into the vats along with meat cells and other ingredients, the serum triggers the cells to reproduce. But Hampton Creek says its scientists are investigating other ways to trigger cells to reproduce, by replacing the cow blood with nutrients coming from plants, according to Viviane Lanquar, the director of Hampton Creek’s biochemistry division.
Still, there’s a lot of work left to complete before the company is ready to sell a product, Tetrick says, likening the process to a creating a top-notch electric car. “Just because you’ve nailed the battery doesn’t mean you’ve nailed the electric car,” he says. He refused to divulge more about his product.
Among the many challenges ahead for lab-made meat companies is trying to figure out how to achieve the Holy Grail of fake meat: creating a cut of meat that has the same texture, taste, and appearance of a steak. As of now, companies are able to make tiny pieces of meat, which when mixed together can be treated and used as a ground meat product. Producing a slab of meat will take more time and engineering.