As the US meat supply chain fumbles, cultured meat startups consider a better system

Image: EPA-EFE/Alex Hofford
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In San Francisco, a group of renderings hangs on a wall near the product development kitchen at JUST, one of about a dozen main companies working to market cell-cultured meat. The drawings show a large facility that’s accessible to the public, a place where people can walk up and peer through large windows at shiny vats filled with growing animal cells—created without ever having to kill an animal. It looks like a giant brewery.

It’s a far cry from what the company has actually built. JUST is one of a handful of companies that have publicly announced breaking ground on small-scale pilot production plants for cell-cultured meat. Bay Area-based Memphis Meats is another. In Israel, Future Meat Technologies is working on one that’s being built just south of Tel Aviv, in Rehovot. Based on these early investments, the companies will determine how quickly they can scale meat production, informing how many plants they need to keep up with demand—and where they should be located.

That calculation may be changing in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Covid-19 has exposed the Achilles heel of the modern US meat system. As key meatpacking plants with sickened workers have been forced to pause production, consumers are facing the prospect of meat shortages in some places and higher prices virtually everywhere. Just one meatpacking plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota is responsible for 5% of US pork production. When that plant and a handful of others stopped production in April because of worker illnesses, it decreased the slaughtering of beef cattle and hogs by 36% and 37% respectively, according to US Department of Agriculture data. The ripple effect was big: Already the price of meat and eggs have increased by 5%

But the cell-based meat industry has yet to build infrastructure on a large scale. Which means it still has a chance to adopt a decentralized model that could avoid the weaknesses of the United States’ monolithic meat industry.

Whatever supply chain is built, it will look a lot different than conventional meat operations, says Rom Kshuk, the CEO of Future Meat Technologies. “You don’t need labor in the sense that somebody is cutting a piece of the animal, like a machine line,” he says. Instead, cell-based meant plants require only the cell lines, a liquid medium for the cells to eat, and a bioreactor in which the cells grow into fat and muscle tissue. Each facility will likely require a handful of laborers to monitor production and oversee the cleanliness of each plant.

Because of that flexibility, it may be possible for many smaller plants to exist around the country, near high-demand nexuses like cities. “I think it absolutely does make more sense,” says Isha Datar, who leads New Harvest, a cellular agriculture non-profit that supports the development of cell-cultured foods. “If we envision it that way, I think it is possible for us to have these production facilities in urban centers.”

The makers of cell-cultured meat could take their cues from Impossible Foods. In September 2017, the plant-based meat company opened its own factory in Oakland, California. The facility is about 68,000 square feet and can produce about 1 million pounds of product per month. After two years of expanding the footprint of restaurants it served and getting its product into grocery stores, Impossible Foods partnered with a company called OSI Group, which rents out food production facilities around the world, including about a dozen in the US. Companies can ship their ingredients and recipes to these facilities, which make the final product.

That model—where the final products are made closer to their end-point restaurants and grocery stores—has several advantages, says Mike Selden, the co-founder and CEO of Finless Foods, which is growing bluefin tuna from fish cells. In the case of cell-cultured fish, the sooner it’s eaten the fresher it will taste, says Selden. It’s no different from how you’d want to ship conventional fish, really.

That’s also a cost savings: “You can save on shipping if it’s done locally,” says Selden.  That could help convince each company’s venture capitalist investors that it’s worth building several smaller plants. “Investors make us do that, and they should,” says Selden “They ask us very directly: ‘How many plants do you intend to build, what kind of staffing would you need, what would you pay that staff?’ All that will help determine price per pound.”

With years of regulatory hurdles ahead of the industry, any vision of the cell-cultured meat supply chain is purely theoretical. And nothing is cut-and-dry. What a company saves on shipping it may rack up in labor costs; presumably, it would be more labor intensive to staff many smaller plants versus a couple of big ones.

But no matter what form cell-based meat manufacturing takes, it will almost assuredly be less vulnerable to the kind of outbreaks seen in meatpacking plants during the pandemic. Kshuk points out that cultured meat facilities will be a lot cleaner than virtually any meatpacking plant, as the cell culturing process won’t work well if it’s adulterated with bacteria. The companies would also have to comply with rules enforced by government inspectors. Initially, cell-cultured meats are expected to be more expensive than conventional meats. But for consumers, a more reliable system might be worth the extra cost.