The science that will make Wagyu beef affordable for everyone

Cattle call.
Cattle call.
Image: AP Photo/Mike Groll
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One of Silicon Valley’s largest food technology companies has inked a deal with one of Japan’s most revered meat producers in a bid to one day bring cell-cultured Wagyu beef to the global marketplace.

The contract, signed this month by JUST and Toriyama Ranch, is the first of its kind, marrying a high-end beef ranch to a cell-cultured meat producer. JUST will source its beef cells from actual cuts of Wagyu beef or the live cows themselves. Those cells will be transported back to JUST’s headquarters in California, where food scientists in its laboratory will work to create the cell lines needed to grow and process meat that would normally only come from pampered Wagyu beef cows.

The first products will likely be ground meat, says JUST CEO Josh Tetrick, with an eye to one day grow the kind of steak cuts that often sell for more than $100 a piece. Wagyu beef cows are raised around the world, but still represent a tiny fraction of the overall beef market. Wagyu cow meat is a rich mixture of fat and umami, and the product of more than three generations of cross-breeding. Operations tend to be much smaller than typical ranches, because, unlike the vast majority of cattle slaughtered for their meat, Wagyu cows are fed higher-cost grains and vegetarian proteins. And to achieve the fatty marbling in their meat, the cows live as stress-free as possible.

To present-day ranchers asking themselves if and how they might interact with cell-cultured meat companies, the deal sets a striking example. To date, ranchers in the American and New Zealand markets have been highly skeptical of cell-cultured meat. Many of them don’t like the idea of such products one day being branded with the word “meat” on their product packaging, and they’ve bristled at the term “clean meat,” which the nascent industry briefly adopted before shifting to the less controversial “cell-based meat.” In fact, many ranchers have taken to using the term “fake meat” when discussing the products made by their cell-cultured counterparts.

Still, massive meat companies such as Cargill, Tyson Foods, PHW Group, and Bell Food Group have invested in cell-cultured meat technology, intrigued by the idea of one day selling a new kind of protein to people increasingly hungry for alternatives to farmed animals. And if a player in the hyper-exclusive Wagyu beef market—with its patented processes for producing marbled cuts of beef—is open to collaborating with a Silicon Valley upstart, less exclusive ranching operations might be more willing to forge similar deals with other cell-cultured meat companies.

For the family-owned Toriyama ranch, the hope is that new technology will help make its high-quality beef more accessible globally. In an email, Wataru Toriyama, a top executive at the company, said he has looked for ways to expand the footprint of Wagyu beef and that the cell-cultured process offers a way to get his high-cost products in front of more people at an affordable price. Toriyama will receive a percentage of the profits JUST makes on every pound of cell-cultured Wagyu beef it produces and sells, though that number is not being disclosed publicly.

Tetrick has said he’ll get cell-cultured meat into a market somewhere in the world by the end of 2018. Until now, JUST and other cell-cultured meat companies have said their success will depend on creating a product that tastes as good as and costs as little as the conventional meat people are used to. But now Tetrick wants to take that lofty goal a step further.

“We’re gonna make a damn burger and it’s going to taste like a Wagyu burger from Japan,” he says. That changes the proposition for potential customers: they can buy conventional beef, or they can buy cell-cultured Wagyu beef for the same price. The marketing plan, in other words, is to democratize a premium food currently inaccessible and unaffordable to the vast majority of eaters in the marketplace.

In addition, by partnering with ranchers such as Toriyama, Tetrick hopes to craft a narrative that will help sell cell-cultured meat. “The meat we eat today is imbued with culture and story, and it’s got to be clear that the choice is not a Silicon Valley choice,” he says. “It’s something much larger than Silicon Valley. This is the story of actual farmers. Real farmers.”

To that end, Tetrick now plans to seek partnerships other types of high-end meat farmers. He wants to find the best pork, seafood, beef, and chicken in the world, places from which to source the cells that will be the bedrock of JUST’s eventual product offerings.

Is a cell a cell?

Before inking the deal with Toriyama, Tetrick had a basic scientific question: Is a cell from a Wagyu beef cow raised in the hills of Japan inherently better for creating a high-quality meat product than, say, a cell from a black Angus beef cow that grazes in the plains of Montana? It’s a variation on the classic nature versus nurture question.

According to several studies published on the topic, the answer is that it’s a little bit of both. Part of a cell’s ability to make a certain quality of meat is tied to genetics.

In 2016, for example, scientists examined the genomes of more than 3,000 cows belonging to the Charolaise, Limousine, and Blonde d’Aquitaine breeds. The results, published in the journal Genetics Selection Evolution, found about 206 genes impacted meat tenderness, and that if cows from different breeds are cross-bred, those genes would play a role in the overall tenderness of the meat produced. An earlier 2010 study in the journal Meat Science also said as much. And in 2017, scientists studied nearly 12,000 Japanese black cattle to investigate the relationship between meat quality traits—the marbling, color, and firmness—and fatty-acid composition. Their work, detailed in Animal Science Journal, found that genetics did play a role in how some of those traits were expressed in resulting meat.

As cell-cultured meat companies push into newer, highly-specific areas of this line of inquiry during their quest to create the types of meat consumers desire, they’ll add to this body of research.

“There’s definitely room for research and experimentation,” says JUST cell-cultured meat scientist Vítor Espírito Santo. “There are a lot of studies already, but the way we’ll pursue our strategy here has never been done before.”

The future is now

The partnership between Toriyama and JUST is the result of a year-long match-making effort by a meat-distribution company, Singapore-based Awano Food Group, which already distributes Toriyama’s Wagyu beef products and recently began distributing JUST’s plant-based scrambled-egg products in Asian markets. Awano will be responsible for distributing the meat that results from the Toriyama-JUST collaboration.

“I’ve been in the meat industry for 30 years now,” says Awano executive Rod Martin. “I think JUST’s way of thinking about the products of the future is how the world will consume protein within 20 years.”

As Wataru Toriyama puts it, people’s lives have become more diverse, and so too have their preferences. Customers aren’t just looking for good-tasting meat, he explained, but are also considering “production method, background, and producers’ philosophies behind the product.”

Even so, Toriyama says there will always be a place for animal agriculture. He does not believe the introduction of cell-cultured meat will wipe out the types of meat people today grew up eating.

“There will be a market,” he wrote. “It cannot be lost. There are special artisans to be valued. The beef produced by them is also special. They are very important as they have been supporting each country’s food culture.”