Is the world getting close to its first taste of cultured meat?
Plant-based meats are no longer a novelty for most US consumers who have at least seen them in the supermarket or tasted burgers from fast-growing brands like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods.
At the same time, another growing crop of startups has been working on recreating traditional animal meat from stem cells, and it’s possible that their first products could hit at least some markets as early as next year.
Meat made from animal cells instead of from whole animals has been given many different names before the first products have even hit the market.
“Cell-based” and “lab-grown” have given way to “clean,” “cultured” and, most recently, “cultivated,” the moniker the Good Food Institute uses in its “2019 State of the Industry: Cultivated Meat” report.
Food producers have the challenge of feeding a growing global population threatened by the effects of climate change and now a global pandemic that has been traced to wild animals as the likely original source.
Cell-based or cultivated meat could cut the amount of land used for production by 95% and the amount of greenhouse gas emissions by between 74% and 87%, according to the GFI report.
Additionally, producing just the desired cuts of meat would eliminate waste and the clean setting means there’s no risk of contamination by E.coli, salmonella and other pathogens, and no need for antibiotics, the report says.
Unlike plant-based meats, some of which have come remarkably close to replicating traditional meats, meat grown from animal cells is identical to the products sourced through traditional animal agriculture.
One of the earliest terms applied to cultivated meat was “lab grown,” a misnomer according to GFI. That’s because the meat won’t actually be produced in a lab once companies scale up -- the products will be made in cultivation facilities and GFI likens the process to brewing beer or cultivating vegetables.
A turning point in 2019
Last year was a growth year for the industry. Previously, startups had been trying to do it all, from creating all the ingredients and inputs to turning out the finished products. That changed last year as specialty B2B startups sprang up to produce growth media and other inputs, the report says.
By the end of last year there were 55 publicly announced ventures in the industry, including 20 that either launched or exited stealth mode in 2019. The roster includes 15 B2B startups providing inputs including cell lines, growth media and scaffolding.
Startups in the industry raised $75 million in new funding last year, more than they had won in the three previous years combined, and 32 of the 55 have now raised capital from outside sources.
Of the 40 making finished products, seven are creating seafood including salmon, tuna and fish maw. The other 33 are focused on meats ranging from the traditional beef, chicken and pork to more exotic items like fois gras, kangaroo and bison.
It’s still not clear when consumers will be able to buy cultivated meats in the grocery store or order the products in restaurants, but at least three companies -- Memphis Meats, Mosa Meat and CUBIQ Foods -- aim to have their first premium products in limited release some time next year.
Bringing down the cost
Numerous news reports about cultured meat companies in recent years, as well as the GFI report and a separate study from IDTechEx, cite input costs as the biggest hurdle to getting affordable products on supermarket shelves.
In January of this year, pioneering cell-based meat company Memphis Meats raised $161 million in a Series B funding round that included a long list of venture capital investors, early investors Bill Gates and Richard Branson, and food industry players including Cargill and Tyson.
The funding will go toward building a production facility to help prove the company’s ability to scale production and ultimately affordably produce enough products to get the meat to markets, Memphis Meats said in its announcement.
Mosa Meat, a Netherlands-based startup, was one of the earliest cultivated meat startups and it made a splash in 2013 when it gave a few select people a tiny taste of its first $325,000 hamburger.
One of the biggest factors keeping the price out of reach was the cost of the growth factor the company was using to grow the cells. Additionally, Mosa’s first products were made using Fetal Bovine Serum, which comes from unborn calves.
In 2019, the company reported it had replaced the serum with a more humane growth factor, and this summer Mosa announced it had cut the cost of the serum by 88 times, with expectations that the cost will drop further as production scales up.
Putting regulations in place
One key issue before cultivated meats come to market in the US is how the products will be regulated. Last year was an important one in that area as well, as the USDA and the FDA worked together to craft guidelines for regulating the industry in the US.
As of 2019, the agencies decided that the FDA would regulate the early stages including cell banks and culturing facilities, and the USDA would inspect production facilities and approve cultivated-meat labels.
Companies are also moving forward in other countries, and Singapore could be the first country to approve a cultivated meat product for sale to consumers, according to the GFI report.
Last year, five key players in the nascent industry formed a new industry group called the Alliance for Meat, Poultry and Seafood Innovation. The founding members are: Memphis Meats, which is making cell-based meat, poultry and fish; JUST, the creator of plant-based JUST Egg, which is also working on cell-based chicken; cell-based meat startup Fork & Goode; and cell-based seafood ventures Finless Foods and BlueNalu.
The group, calling itself AMPS Innovation for short, has since added two more companies, Artemys Foods and New Age Meats.
The group’s mission is to educate consumers and other stakeholders about the industry and its products, and to advocate for policies that smooth the path to market for cultured meat products.
Much of the innovation and investment has been happening in the US, but there’s also interest and activity in global markets. There are now cultivated meat startups based in 19 countries, the GFI report says, and many have chosen their locations based on factors including government investments and research institutions.
This year, KFC Russia announced a partnership with research lab 3D Bioprinting Solutions to start making chicken nuggets from cells, in the first public embrace by a major restaurant brand.
Last month, UK startup Higher Steaks revealed its first products, pork belly and bacon, both of which are made with a combination of cultured animal cells and plant-based fats and other ingredients.
The current pandemic has put an increased focus on meat production, especially after slaughterhouses around the country began reporting rising numbers of COVID-19 cases. Those supply chain disruptions and others like the African Swine Fever outbreak that killed off about 40% of China’s pigs last year could fuel demand for cultivated meat when the products finally become available to consumers.
“Current methods of meat production are unsustainable, both contributing to pandemics and leaving supply chains incredibly vulnerable to them,” the GFI report says.
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