Forget plant-based meat—lab-grown meat is the future

Forget plant-based meat—lab-grown meat is the future
Image: Jeannie Phan for Quartz
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Let’s start with something kind of wild. On Oct. 7, it was announced that astronauts on the International Space Station had successfully grown their own meat from microscopic animal cells, using a process called cell-culturing. The bit of cow muscle they produced was small, but it was a historic accomplishment nonetheless.

The ISS project was part of a joint venture by San Francisco-based Finless Foods and Israel-based Aleph Farms, just two of many startups pioneering the concept of cell-cultured meat. Their technology isn’t just a sci-fi fantasy, conceived to nourish future space colonies: It has very real implications for our food systems right now.

Already in supermarkets around the US, plant-based meat products are appearing in actual meat sections. More and more fast food restaurants and retail outlets are adding the Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods burgers to their menu boards; massive companies, including Nestlé, see enough interest to create their own plant-based burgers.

Those events signal a changing attitude toward meat. Whether people are acting out of curiosity, or because they think meat alternatives are better for the environment, their health, or animal welfare, they are increasingly willing to give these new products a shot. And that’s where cell-cultured meat comes in. The startups creating this next generation of meat products are betting they’ll be able to ride that same wave of public interest to sell something closer to the real thing than plant-based meats—and indeed, better than the real thing for a range of reasons.

It won’t be easy. Consumers will have high expectations for a food that, in many ways, is a high-tech carbon copy. It’s one thing to imagine plants being tinkered into something that looks and tastes like a real burger; anyone can visualize the familiar soy, potatoes, and coconut that go into making an Impossible Burger. But cell-cultured meat requires some mental elasticity. Growing meat out of cells sounds strange. It will be paramount for the makers of cell-cultured meat to meet consumer expectations around taste, appearance, texture, cost, and safety.

Before we take deep dive, here’s a refresher on what got us to where we are…

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A meaty moment

Cell-cultured meat and plant-based alternatives to meat have developed rapidly over the last five years, creating a lot of fertile ground for discussion, activism, and innovation.

Driving the narrative are three overarching concerns:

🥩Nutrition: The World Health Organization in 2015 announced that the preponderance of nutrition science (a very persnickety area of study) indicated that eating red meat was bad for our health by linking it to some cancers. That science has been questioned, and some recent evidence suggests people shouldn’t be so panicked about eating red meat. It’s a very nuanced topic, but by and large, eating moderate amounts of meat is fine. Still, it became a point of interest for some consumers, inviting them to think more about meat alternatives.

🥩Ecology: For years, climate science (a less persnickety area of study) has shown that industrialized farming is not great for the Earth. Most of this can be pinned on the beef industry, which is a major emitter of greenhouse gases. In 2013, a United Nations study estimated that of the 14% of global emissions attributed to animal agriculture, beef accounted for 41%. Simply put, a byproduct of rearing cattle is methane gas. And once methane gets released into the atmosphere, it traps 20 times more heat than carbon, contributing to a rapidly-warming planet.

🥩Ethics: A lot of animals have to die every year to satisfy the appetites of humans. The numbers are pretty staggering: In 2017, we slaughtered more than 69 billion animals (counting only cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys).

In fact, we kill so many chickens that it’s hard to even read on a chart how many other animals die. So here’s another chart that removes chickens to get a closer look at other animals:

Staring at these data is uncomfortable for some people, a feeling that can be amplified when you consider that:

  • Global estimates show the demand for meat will only increase, especially as the world population grows and as more people in India and China are lifted out of poverty and have more disposable income to spend on meat and dairy products.
  • Humans are crafty. The reality is we don’t need to kill animals to get the nutrients we need.
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Making a better burger

Plant-based meat alternatives can begin to address all three of those concerns. A lot of people have heard of Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, which have worked really hard to make their products—meat alternatives that are higher-tech than your garden variety black bean burger—look and feel like the real thing. But plant-based meat mimicry can only go so far.

From a nutritional point of view, it’s just not the same as real meat—and some people argue it might even be less healthy. Plant-based meat makers turn to concoctions of heme iron, coconut, potatoes, soy, methylcellulose, and a list of other ingredients to mimic some of the properties of meat. In a review of plant-based burgers published by Harvard University, they were found to be heavily processed and high in saturated fat—not great news for people trying to be mindful about their health. For example, both Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat’s products contain close to four times the sodium found in a basic patty of ground beef (about 370mg compared to just 80mg, respectively).  Excessive sodium consumption has been linked to heart disease and hypertension.

This is where cell-cultured meat becomes interesting. It started as a Dutch idea in 1948, shortly after the end of the Second World War. At the time, cell culturing was only used in medicine, never for food. But now, all these years later, scientists at a handful of startups can take cells from an animal—cow, pig, chicken, turkey, you name it—and grow those cells in a controlled setting into fat and muscle tissue. Put the two together and you have real meat, without the same ecological or ethical drama. The companies growing this meat say it’s their intent to produce products with the same nutritional profile as conventional meat, but that future work will likely allow them to create burgers with more protein or fat than a typical cut.

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Taking a bite

On top of the nutritional advantages, cell-based meat is actually meat—and therefore tastes like it.

Debbie Perkins heads up Netherlands-based ING Bank’s global food and agribusiness finance business. In her role, she’s watched alternative meat products closely. She says she finds the texture and look of plant-based burgers—including those made by Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat—pretty convincing. Look no further than the popular Impossible Foods burger, a product that uses heme to literally ‘bleed‘ while it’s cooked, to see that. But she doesn’t think consumers are totally sold on taste yet. That’s why when these products are served, they often come slathered in cheese and condiments, “to mask what the actual burger tastes like,” she says.

The founder of Israeli cell-cultured meat company Future Meat Technologies, Yaakov “Koby” Nahmias, sees taste as a strength of cell-cultured meat. He agrees that plant-based meat can effectively replicate the muscle aspects of conventional meat, which contribute to the product’s appearance and even texture.  But there’s still a key element missing.

“What I can’t get is the aroma and the flavor,” Nahmias says. “So it comes to growing fat tissue.”

That is one of the biggest cases to be made for cell-cultured meats. These companies can simply grow real muscle tissue (which provides much of the feeling and look of meat) and fat and connective tissue (which delivers on flavor).

Now that plant-based meat has proven people are interested in trying an alternative to meat produced from slaughtered animals, the runway is potentially built to bring a higher-tech, authentic-tasting alternative to the fore.

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Making safer food

The companies making cell-cultured meat say their product will be subject to all the same safety rigors as the rest of the food system. And at the level of production, scientists say that cell-cultured meat can theoretically be cleaner than conventional meat. New Harvest, a New York-based non-profit that works to advance research into cellular agriculture, points out that when you remove the animal and its external factors from the equation of making food, it’s easier to control the quality of the meat.

“Cellular agriculture products could avoid foodborne illness attributable to fecal contamination” the organization says, “and could minimize the risk of the development of epidemic zoonotic viruses like swine or avian flu.”

Additionally, the makers of cell-cultured meat say their closely-monitored and sterilized growing systems will ensure people will be able to worry less about things like salmonella, norovirus, and E. coli. Of course, the industry does not yet have anything on the market. Until a production system is up and running, we can’t know the risk profile or what regulations will be needed to keep consumers safe.

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Yes, it’s expensive—but not for long

The cost of cell-cultured meat is still really high, but the entrepreneurs behind it are driving down costs.

March 2013 – Mosa Meat founder Mark Post unveils a cell-cultured burger patty (paywall). $1.2 million per pound.

March 2017 – Memphis Meats founder Uma Valeti says (paywall) the cost of a cell-cultured burger is down to $18,000 per pound; chicken, $9,000 per pound.

June 2017 – Memphis Meats says the cost of chicken is now $2,400 per pound (paywall).

July 2019 – Israel-based Aleph Farms says its thin slice of steak costs $50.

October 2019 – JUST founder Josh Tetrick tells Quartz a single chicken nugget costs $50.

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Power players are intrigued

The non-profit Good Food Institute, which lobbies on behalf of and supports meat alternative companies, published a report (pdf) showing that, as of June 2019, cell-cultured meat companies have collectively raised more than $140 million since the very first investment in 2015. And money going into cell-cultured meat is on the rise, with a 169% increase in invested capital between 2017 and 2018. Here are some of the best-known names gambling on the technology:

Individual investors: Bill Gates, Li Ka-shing, Solina Chau, Richard Branson, Suzy and Jack Welch, Kyle Vogt, and Kimbal Musk.

Investor groups: PHW Group, Tyson Foods, Cargill, JBS, Archer Daniels Midland, Bell Food Group, Khosla Ventures, S2G Ventures, the Israeli government, Horizons Ventures, New Crop Capital, SOSV, Fifty Years, KBW Ventures, and Inevitable Ventures, among others.

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The top startups on our radar

If you account for companies that haven’t emerged from stealth mode, the total number of cell-cultured meat startups could hover around 40 globally. There are about 15, though, that have raised the bulk of the industry’s investment capital. Of those, these six companies attract most of the attention:

  • Memphis Meats in Silicon Valley has raised more than $22 million.
  • Future Meat Technologies in Israel has raised more than $14 million.
  • Aleph Farms in Israel has raised more than $11 million.
  • Mosa Meat in the Netherlands has raised more than $9 million.
  • JUST in Silicon Valley, has invested more than $5 million in its cell-cultured meat work.
  • Finless Foods in Silicon Valley has raised more than $4 million.

It’s still unclear when the first product will get to market, but it’s highly likely that when one does, it will be produced by one of these six companies. JUST and Future Meat Technologies have been the most vocal about their goals.

JUST’s CEO, Josh Tetrick, has said he expected to get something to market by the end of 2018. He missed that target, but maintains something is coming very soon. Future Meat Technologies announced this month (Oct. 10) a Series A investment round of $14 million, which will go toward building the world’s first cell-cultured meat production facility near its headquarters in Rehovot, Israel, just south of Tel Aviv.

Between the companies listed above, the industry has plans to deliver all of the most common meats:

Beef: Aleph Farms, Future Meat Technologies, Memphis Meats, Mosa Meat
Poultry: JUST, Memphis Meats
Pork: JUST, Memphis Meats
Seafood: Finless Foods, JUST

There are also an assortment of off-the-wall cell-cultured meat products being made. For instance, cell-cultured cat food (made of cultured mouse meat) is being developed by Bond Pet Foods. And in Australia, Vow Foods is working on cell-cultured kangaroo meat.

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Chefs before supermarkets

Once cell-cultured meat companies are producing meat in sufficient quantities to accommodate public consumption, where are consumers likely to find it?

When strategizing about how to enter the marketplace, cell-cultured meat makers may be able to learn from the roll-out of high-profile plant-based meat products. Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are the top-performing plant-based meat companies right now, but they chose very different paths to the marketplace.

Beyond Meat sought to charm consumers in retail, and focused primarily on getting into grocery stores. It found a lot of success there, and even got its products into the actual meat section.

By contrast, Impossible Foods has only recently ventured into retail. It started by creating splashy media spectacles through partnerships with well-known chefs in specific markets, releasing its products in single restaurants initially before expanding into chains, including Burger King.

Most cell-cultured meat companies are compelled by the route taken by Impossible Foods. This is for a couple reasons:

  • From a production standpoint, it’ll be easier to scale their meat products if they only have to worry about meeting the demand at individual restaurants at first. It’s a way to better balance supply and demand.
  • It allows them to better control the messaging around the product’s release to consumers and to demonstrate how their products are best served.
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The number to destroy: 14%

The makers of cell-cultured meat want to be an answer to the greenhouse gas problem problem caused by animal agriculture, and they claim their processes are inherently greener than the systems we have in place right now. But just how much greener remains an open question. A lot of the claims cell-cultured meat entrepreneurs make are typically drawn from just four pieces of research (from 2011, 2012, and two from 2015).

To be fair, it’s really hard to measure precisely for a couple reasons:

  • No cell-cultured meat company has a fully operational production facility. Their work occurs mostly in a laboratory setting, which is a fraction of the size of any commercial operation.
  • Such processes are part of each company’s trove of intellectual property, and the companies aren’t particularly open about sharing the kinds of data academic researchers need to develop a better understanding of the technology.

A new study released in February 2019 in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems found that, in the near term, cell-cultured meat will help in the fight against climate change. But over 1,000 years, an arbitrary timeframe used for the study, the answer is less clear.

The study focused on the top polluter in animal agriculture: beef cattle. The food that cows eat goes into their digestive tract, which includes four stomachs. It’s in these stomachs that methane is created, and when it’s eventually released into the atmosphere it has some pretty serious consequences. When people talk about greenhouse gas emissions, a lot of attention often goes to carbon dioxide. However, a molecule of methane traps about 10 times more heat than a molecule of carbon dioxide. It’s worth noting, though, that a molecule of carbon dioxide hovers in our atmosphere for more than 100 years, whereas methane only sticks around for about 12 years.

For now, the available evidence suggests that if it’s widely embraced, cell-cultured meat will be easier on the planet than animal agriculture. In the long run, though, we can’t really be sure by how much.

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What’s the biggest barrier?

Government. Hands down.

The science and technology are at a point where several of the startups making cell-cultured meat could easily supply single restaurants using small-scale production facilities. The issue is making sure they have the approval of regulators to serve the products. As of now, no government on the planet has a food safety or oversight process to monitor how the meat is made, how safe it is to eat, or how it is labeled and sold to consumers.

After a lot of inter-agency squabbling, the US Department of Agriculture and US Food and Drug Administration in August 2018 decided to team up to build a regulatory pathway. That work is still underway. And in the European Union, companies will have to begin a two-year application process to be sold as a “novel food” before they can hit the market.

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What’s in a name?

It’s still unclear what this new meat will be called once it hits the market. It’s a topic that makes the small industry jittery, though, because they want to make a good first impression on consumers. There’s been some research into consumer reaction to different terms, but no one term has emerged as a clear winner.

Here are a few that have been used by companies and academics in the space: in vitro meat, clean meat, cultivated meat, lab-grown meat, slaughter-free meat, craft meat, cell-cultured meat, and cell-based meat.

The top Silicon Valley companies formed a trade group in August 2019 and they’ve coalesced—at least for now—around calling it cell-based meat.

News headlines have long used the term “lab-grown meat” because it has been an easy and accurate way to tell readers what this product is. However that term is fast falling out of favor because as cell-cultured meats scale up, they will no longer be made in laboratory settings.

Whatever people wind up calling it, the companies growing this meat are eager to begin introducing their work to consumers. Many of them say they expect this to happen in the next year—perhaps first in Singapore—as regulators become more comfortable with the idea. And when they do, cell-cultured meats will expect to vie for a spot on everyday dinner plates.