The growing business of growing meat from animal cells

It’s been nearly six years since scientists from the Netherlands offered the first taste of beef made in the lab from cultured cow cells. That first burger cost $300,000 to make and researchers and a growing handful of startups are working to bring the cost down and the quality up to create commercially viable alternatives to traditional meat production.

Cultured meat innovation made strides last year, as Memphis Meats won investment from Tyson, companies grew closer to putting affordable versions of lab-grown beef, chicken and fish on the market and the Agriculture Department and Food and Drug Administration hammered out a tentative agreement on how meats made in labs instead of slaughterhouses would be regulated.

No lab-grown meat is on the market in the US yet, but the fledgling industry is evolving, along with debates and research into what the products should be called and some state-level efforts to keep it from being called meat at all.

Unlike the growing crop of plant-based meat alternatives, cultured or lab-grown meats are made using cells from animals and turned into burgers, sausages, chicken nuggets and fish filets using technology. Both industries aim to address the ethical, environmental and health issues associated with traditional animal agriculture and meat production.

In its earliest days, many researchers and startups called the lab-grown products “clean meat,” but that term has largely given way to other monikers including “cultured meat,” “cell-cultured meat” and “cell-based meat.” In its agreement, the FDA and USDA refer to it as “cell-cultured food products.”

What to call the products could prove an ongoing sticking point. Groups including the Good Food Institute are challenging a Missouri law that took effect last year and bars companies from using the word “meat” on any product “that is not derived from harvested production livestock or poultry.”

Backers of the measure specifically cited lab-grown meat as the impetus for passing the law, and lawmakers in states including Nebraska, Virginia, Tennessee and Wyoming are considering similar bills.

In its lengthy comments to the FDA and USDA, the non-profit GFI voiced support for calling the cultured products meat.

“Cell-cultured meat products should be required to use the same nomenclature as their conventional counterparts,” said GFI’s Director of Policy Jessica Almy. “This will ensure people know exactly what they’re buying, especially if they have allergies. These companies should also be allowed to make additional claims (e.g., ‘antibiotic-free’ or ‘slaughter-free’) as long as these claims are supported by scientific evidence.”

The move by the FDA and USDA to hammer out a framework came as a growing number of startups gearing up to bring products to market pushed to ensure that they’ll be able to do so. Some are looking outside the US to markets like China where regulations could make it easier to launch.

Plant-based mayo and egg maker JUST Inc. has cell-based chicken nuggets ready to go to market and they’re expected to launch in foodservice channels in Asia soon. JUST CEO Josh Tetrick has been a vocal supporter of US efforts to set up a system to regulate cell-cultured meat and the company hopes to sell its cell-based chicken nuggets in the US as well, but it’s not waiting for that to happen.

In addition to plans for launching JUST chicken in Asia, the company has teamed with Japan-based Wagyu beef producer Toriyama and global meat distributor Awano Food Group to turn cells from Toriyama’s cattle into premium cultured beef.

“People love meat and Wagyu tastes better than regular beef,” Tetrick said during a recent interview. “Under our deal, every quarter we’ll have access to cells from what they consider to be their very best cows. We’ll bring those back to our facilities, identify the nutrients and ultimately we’ll develop ground beef.”

Tetrick expects to have a Wagyu beef burger on the market in the next two years.

Other startups continue to develop their products and move closer to commercial launches.

Several cell-based startups are working on seafood, including Seafuture, Finless Foods, BlueNalu and Avant Meats.

Another company, New Age Meats, is producing a lab-grown pork sausage. Last fall, the company sampled the sausage and highlighted the fact that it was produced from cells obtained from one biopsy on a single pig named Jessie, listed on the company’s homepage as its Chief Sausage Officer.

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