Andy Coyne examines the state of play of the cell-based meat industry and wonders when we will see their products outside of the lab.
There is a frustrating, ‘jam tomorrow’ aspect to all the talk around cell-based meat.
Perhaps it is the tantalising prospect of what might be achieved by the men and women in labs and what it might mean for the future of food that makes us keep asking the question of when we will see something more than a prototype of meat created without harming animals.
But the answer always seem to be that we are a couple of years away.
However, there do seem to be signs of progress. Specifically, costs associated with the process, previously sky high, do seem to be coming down.
It should be remembered that it was back in 2013 when Mosa Meat of the Netherlands created the world’s first lab-grown burger at the eye-watering cost of EUR250,000 (US$295,594 at today’s conversion rate).
Here we are seven years later and the products are still in the lab, seemingly a long way from supermarket shelves.
On the face of it, even for a layman, what is being done in those labs is relatively easy to understand.
Stem cells are taken from the muscle of an animal and added to a nutrient rich-solution called cell culture medium – typically containing vitamins, sugars and proteins – and left to multiply, or fatten, to create meat.
The environmental and animal-welfare benefits of this process succeeding has meant the nascent industry has enjoyed more media attention – and investment dollars – than many other areas of food product development, with the exception of plant-based meat alternatives, also known as alt-protein.
But, as was demonstrated seven years ago, the central issue facing the industry is no longer proof of concept. It can be done, even with trickier marbled cuts of meat such as steak, but can it be done at scale and at an affordable cost?
Some investors think so as they continue to back cell-based meat companies, enticed by the prospect of getting in early to a development offering so much promise on paper (and lab desk).
In January, Memphis Meats of the US secured US$161m in new funding with meat giant Tyson Foods once again among the consortium of investors.
The California-based company said in January it will use the funds to build a pilot production plant, expand its team and to “hit a major milestone of launching products into the market”. However, it has not set an actual launch date.
David Kay, Memphis Meats’ senior manager of communications and operations, tells just-food the company needs to develop additional infrastructure for production, with a pilot production facility a key element.
“The focus is on reducing the cost of production and increasing production scale. On both of these issues, we have made very significant progress since we were founded in 2015,” Kay insists.
Mosa Meat is still pushing hard to get a product ready to scale up. It too has attracted investment from established food companies. Last month, Switzerland’s Bell Food Group agreed to put EUR5m in the Dutch business.
Beckie Calder-Flynn, Mosa Meat’s operations co-ordinator, says: “We are aiming for a first market introduction in the next few years. It is very difficult to commit to a particular time frame because there are still some scientific unknowns and factors outside our control, such as the regulatory process.
“The first introduction will likely be small-scale. Several years beyond that, we aim to be widely available in supermarkets and restaurants.”
The thorny issue of the cost of producing at scale is never far from the surface.
Calder-Flynn says: “As with any technology, initial prices tend to be extremely high until the product is commercialised, production is made efficient, and then products are sold en masse.
“For us, we are currently working on up-scaling our equipment so that we can produce large quantities quickly and efficiently. This hasn’t been done before and is complex.
“We estimate that commercialisation will bring the price of a burger down to EUR9.00, compared with the EUR250,000 it cost to make the first burger. The cost of a hamburger in the supermarket is around EUR1.00 and we expect that with further efficiency improvements we will be able to bring the price down to this level over the next decade.
“Ultimately, cultured meat should be cheaper than conventional meat given its production is more efficient. One cell sample can create up to 10,000kg of cultured meat. Our estimates suggest that at that rate we would only need 150 cows to satisfy the world’s current meat demand.
“The bottleneck currently is production efficiency and speed. It takes about ten weeks to make a [cell-based] hamburger, which is obviously not suitable for commercial production, but this doesn’t mean we can’t produce at industrial scale in the future. Because cell growth is exponential, it takes ten weeks to produce one quarter pound hamburger, but only about 12 weeks to produce 100,000 hamburgers.”
Mosa Meat claimed another breakthrough on cost recently when the company announced it had achieved an 80x reduction in the cost of the growth medium – or nutrient mix – for its lab-grown meat.
Part of that transition is to move away from FBS (Fetal Bovine Serum), the standard growth medium used by the cell-based meat industry.
California-based New Age Meats is another business at the forefront of the cell-based charge. At the end of July, it secured $2m from investors just six months after raising $2.7m in seed funding from a consortium of backers.
The company said the new seed extension funding will help it to continue to develop cell-based pork products.
Specifically, New Age Meats plans to further expand its food science department, implement more automation and robotics and continue to attempt to reduce the cost of its first lab-produced product, a pork sausage.
Like its rivals, New Age Meats is now working towards building a pilot facility, scaling product development and production and getting its first foods to market.
Derin Alemli, director of operations and finance at the business, admitted development has slowed down because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Covid has set the process back a little bit. We’ve been figuring out how to get back into the lab. We are at about 80% capacity now so we are making progress,” he says.
Alemli believes the company’s focus on pork gives it a distinct advantage. “Pigs are highly researched animals and there’s a huge market for it. Our first product is a pork sausage because it’s easier to use pork than a marbled product such as steak.”
On the issue of cost, Alemli is optimistic about the future of lab-created products.
“The costs have come down dramatically to the $800-$1,000 a pound range,” he says. “The equipment is expensive but that is a one-off cost. It’s the media to feed the cells [that ratchets up costs]. “If we are not at the $15-$20 a pound range in the future that’s tough sledding.”
Also working hard to create lab-based meat is the French company Gourmey. The company is attempting to create a cruelty-free version of foie gras.
The French delicacy, which directly translates as “fat liver,” is traditionally made out of the liver of a duck or goose which has been force-fed or over-fed.
Company co-founder and CEO Nicolas Morin-Forest tells just-food Gourmey is building a “versatile platform” around duck stem cells.
“With our cells’ ability to specialise into any cell type, including muscle cells, we will also bring more complex cuts of meat at some point once the scaffold-based cultured meat technologies will have matured,” he says.
Morin-Forest will not commit to a specific launch date at this stage.
“We are currently working on a lab-scale foie gras prototype and will showcase it in the next months,” he says.
Jack Bobo, the CEO of Futurity, a Washington DC-based “food foresight company that helps brands get ahead of trends,” is someone who has kept a close eye on developments in the cell-based area.
In terms of timescale for scaling up production, he says: “Some of the companies have got a very aggressive timeline. Others say they are some way off from commercialisation. Certainly there is some hype around businesses trying to get exposure to the media and investors. Companies with adequate funding are a lot less aggressive in what they are saying.”
Bobo, a former special adviser on food policy at the US Department of State, suggests there are “some real technical issues that companies are still tackling”.
He also thinks they can be communicating their message better. “I have talked privately to some of these companies and I told them to drop the term ‘clean meat’. If I was running a company I would not want to be sitting down with a journalist and talking about safety and ethics.
“It’s highly offensive to livestock producers and ended up with 28 states trying to stop them using the term meat. It was a self-inflicted wound. If you are getting close to market you need to communicate to the market better.”
Of course, getting that product to market depends on regulatory approval and success ultimately depends retailers and consumers wanting to eat cell-based meat.
On the regulatory front, the US seems further ahead than Europe.
In March 2019, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced they’d established a framework for regulating cell-based meat and poultry.
The USDA will oversee food processing, labelling and distribution and the FDA will conduct inspections and safety checks. Within the European Union, food produced from cell culture or tissue culture derived from animals falls within the scope of the EU Novel Foods Regulation. There are those in cell-based meat space that see the US as having made more progress on the regulation of the fledgling sector than the EU, with some entrepreneurs wanting more engagement from Brussels and asking whether its process needs to take the time it does. The EU’s Novel Foods Regulation takes up to two years in practice to go through.
Getting retailers and consumers on board is, of course, then also key once any approval is handed down.
Kay at Memphis Meats is confident in this regard. He says: “Research suggests that roughly two-thirds of Americans would eat cell-based meat, and that the more consumers learn about our products, the more enthusiastic they become.
“We are anticipating a lot of excitement from consumers, and we’ve already heard from many major retailers and restaurant chains that are interested in our work.”
Calder-Flynn at Mosa Meat agrees. “We receive emails every day from people all around the world who are excited and passionate about cultured meat and the vast majority of responses we get about our work are extremely positive. People are wanting to eat healthier, more sustainable, and animal-friendly meat and they strongly believe cultured meat can offer that.”
Alemli at New Age Meats says the research it has seen and done shows there will be early adopters if it is at the right cost. “The rise in alt-protein is good for us.”
He suggest ethics and a post-Covid focus on safety will also come into play. “The inside of a slaughterhouse is not an appetising place. Our environment is very sanitary. It is safer, better for the environment.”
When considering when such products will see the light of day, could the answer be in hybrid products, linking animal cells and plant-based ingredients?
Alemli at New Age Meats says his company’s sausage is “more of a hybrid product”, adding: “I think hybrid is a way of getting consumers ready for it and getting to market at a quite reasonable cost.”
A company developing hybrid products is none other than KFC, the global fast-food chicken giant.
In July, KFC announced it had joined forces with Russian firm 3D Bioprinting Solutions, which is developing additive bioprinting technology that uses a recipe of chicken cells and plant ingredients. The resulting product is likely to be trialled in Russia.
What the move demonstrates is even mainstream majors are starting to think about the concept of cell-based meat and how it can benefit their businesses.
And while they can be accused of many things, being slow to market isn’t one of them.