The noise surrounding cultivated or lab-grown meat is increasing all the time but the level of activity involving the end product is not yet justifying the hype.

Hurdles, including the high cost of producing meat from animal cells, gaining regulatory approval and convincing customers and the end consumer that it’s something they need and want, are either still to be successfully cleared or yet to be approached.

For all of the food-tech, or just plain tech, businesses looking to make a name for themselves and for all of the investment money that has flowed into what some see as, depending on the level of hyperbole, the future of food and the saviour of the planet, months and years go by without many of these businesses being much further advanced than when they started out.

In November 2020, US-based cultivated-meat business Good Meat became the first company to win approval to sell meat created in a laboratory from cells when it was given the green light by Singapore’s regulator. The company, part of Eat Just, has since won similar approval in the US, alongside another company, Upside Foods.

However, as Josh Tetrick, the company’s founder, told Just Food in December: “Ultimately, we want to make millions of pounds of cultivated meat but we need to do a lot of work on things like cell density and reducing the cost of the growth medium.”

Tetrick said his business was making good progress but added: “There’s no doubt it is a massive challenge to be able to produce it on a large scale. This is a significant challenge for cultivated meat.”

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Lab-grown meat and pet food

If the companies that have already won regulatory approval and have an end product on sale – albeit in a very limited way – see it as a “massive challenge”, what hope for everyone else?

Well, there are signs that cultivated-meat firms may have found a new target, one that would allow them to get their product to market more quickly, to cut down on cell-growth costs and require a less rigorous level of regulation: pet-food.

In November, Czech Republic-based Bene Meat revealed it was targeting the EU pet-food market and claimed to be the first to have listed its cultivated cells on the bloc’s European Feed Materials Register.

No approval is required for animal feeds as long as they are safe and comply with existing regulations.

The Prague-based business, backed by medical devices company BTL, has been working on the development and technology of cultivated meat production since 2020.

Meeting the needs of pet-food manufacturers

Bene Meat said its pet food will be “full of pure, high-quality animal protein, without the need for a single animal to die in its production”. Its product, like those of other cultivated-meat manufacturers, is produced in a laboratory in bioreactors by removing cells from a living animal and then growing them in a nutrient-rich medium.

Roman Kříž, the company’s managing director, said in November: “We know that at this stage of the research we have already met the needs of pet-food producers, who are constantly looking for ethically and economically meaningful ways to satisfy their demanding customers, pet owners, with their products.”

Price – especially of the growth medium – has often been a barrier to manufacturing at scale but Bene Meat said it has developed the technology to “produce cultured meat in such a way that the resulting price is competitive in comparison with the prices of products made from traditionally-sourced raw materials”.

“There is no inherent reason why it [cultivated meat] should be costly. It’s more a question of teething problems and problems of realisation,” Tomáš Kubeš, the company’s head of strategic projects, says. “Bene Meat intends to be a one-stop-shop so we have our own medium and cell lines.”

Without giving away company secrets, Vendula Kucerova, Bene Meat’s head of sales and marketing strategy, adds: “We have a cost-effective medium which means we can bring it to the market. Our medium with no FBS [foetal bovine serum] is something different.”

FBS is a by-product of the meat industry and is usually collected from blood at commercial slaughterhouses. Understandably, companies might want to distance themselves from this particular growth medium.

Structural issues

Kucerova makes another point about costs when it comes to using cultivated meat for pet food.

“There is a structural issue in trying to create something close to normal meat. For pet food you don’t need to do that. It is in the form of processed meat,” she says.

Therefore the theory goes that the growth period is shorter, which would be useful when trying to scale-up production.

There always seems to be a ‘jam tomorrow’ element to when cultivated meat products will finally emerge into the daylight but Kubeš is confident Bene Meat is getting close.

“We are already talking intensively with [pet-food] manufacturers and hopefully in Q1 we will start small-scale production trials. 2024 will primarily be for testing,” he says.

“We have built a facility for the pilot scale trial and also hope to have an industrial scale facility by the end of the year to allow us to produce on a commercial scale.”

Assessing pet-food makers’ demand for lab-grown meat

But why would pet-food companies want lab-grown meat for their products?

Kucerova says: “Trends have suggested there might not be enough meat in the future and that will impact prices. So, the demand from pet-food manufacturers is quite high. They are looking at alternative protein sources. From feedback, we have found they want alternative protein at an affordable price.”

Demand from pet-food manufacturers is quite high. They are looking at alternative protein sources

Vendula Kucerova, Bene Meat

Her view would seem to be backed up by the development of pet-food based on alternative protein sources such as crickets.

Last month, Ÿnsect was granted authorisation by the Association of American Feed Control Officials to use de-fatted mealworm proteins within dog nutrition. It is the first time mealworm-based ingredients for pet food have been approved in the US.

US-based Hill’s Pet Nutrition – owned by Colgate-Palmolive – is to test products for regulatory review and market evaluation based on animal protein created through fermentation by Bond Pet Foods.

The companies have also announced a second joint development agreement to create an additional animal protein for potential use in Hill’s products. The aim is to “develop a source of more sustainable animal protein to fulfil the dietary needs of dogs and cats”.

This search for alternative protein among pet food manufacturers has not been lost on Canada-based Cult Food Science.

In August, Cult Food Science announced a deal with Everything But to use the South Korean start-up’s cell-cultivated chicken in its pet-food brands, which include Noochies, Marina Cat and Indiana.

The regulatory pathway for pet-food in the US requires approval from the Center For Veterinary Medicine, a branch of the US Food and Drug Administration.

In a statement at the time, Cult Food Science said: “Our collaboration with Everything But is illustrative of our commitment to shaping the future of food at a truly global scale. These ingredients will allow us to reach even more customers with innovative products.”

Expanding on its plans in a recent conversation with Just Food, Cult Food Science CEO Mitchell Scott says it is also partnering with another cell-based meat company.

“We are also working with Umami Bioworks from Singapore. We are shipping from Singapore and have a co-packer in the US. We are looking at creating a pilot facility in Boston with Umami,” he says.

“The first product will be Marina Cat, a cultured-snapper product. We’re really excited to have a product that can be tasted and tested and hope that will generate additional interest and investment.”

Initial scepticism

Scott admits he was sceptical about the idea of using lab-grown meat for pet food at first, largely because of how much it would cost to produce.

“My thoughts at first were that it doesn’t make sense but, when I dug into it, I got excited and we saw an opportunity,” he says.

“There is a much quicker regulatory pathway [than food intended for humans]. And, on the cost thing, we can harvest cells mid-term because it doesn’t have to have the same structure as meat if it is getting mixed in.

“These are not necessarily 100% meat products which helps to make them profitable. Pet food is already a mix of stuff which is fine as long as it’s high protein.

“And, from a consumer point of view, it’s not animals eating other animals and it’s also sustainable.”

Given the demand for premium, speciality pet-food the time is right now

Mitchell Scott, Cult Food Science

Scott believes Cult Food Science could be at the start of a growing trend.

“If it’s profitable for us and makes sense at the scale we are doing it, the larger pet-food companies may look at doing it,” he says. “It’s about bringing the product to market and proving there’s a demand there.

“And some of the cultivated-meat firms are starting to have these conversations as it may mean they can get a product to market in six months rather than a few years. Given the demand for premium, speciality pet-food the time is right now.”

Analysts and investors have been quick to pick up on the potential for lab-grown meat and pet-food to have a symbiotic relationship.

Lever VC, a New York- and Hong Kong-based investment firm, was one of the first to see the potential of cultivated-meat businesses and recently led a $7m funding round in US-based Clever Carnivore, which is producing cultivated pork sausage with plans to unveil its prototype product, the Clever Bratwurst, this year.

On the potential market for cell-based protein in pet food, Nick Cooney, Lever’s managing partner, who has previously spoken about Clever Carnivore’s “astonishingly low cost of production” and “phenomenal science”, says he has come round to thinking the idea could have legs.

It will take a while for cultivated meat to get to a price point where pet food can work

Nick Cooney, Lever VC

“Prior to this [involvement with Clever Carnivore], we would have been sceptical of cultivated meat for pet-food from a price point of view but Clever Carnivore has made me think again,” he says.

“Not one of the businesses we have looked at has even come close to what Clever Carnivore is doing in terms of production costs.”

Cooney stresses that, even so, “it will take a while for cultivated meat to get to a price point where pet food can work, even within the premium segment”.

But he thinks ongoing premiumisation in the sector is an important factor here and add that “cats and dogs are less discerning customers as long as it tastes good”.

“And there is a good story to tell in terms of sustainability,” he says.

Easier path to market

Hannah Cleland, a research analyst at Just Food parent GlobalData, can see why pet-food has triggered interest from producers of lab-grown meat.

“Cultured pet-food could find an easier path to market than cultured meat is finding for human consumption as there is significantly less red tape for approval of sale for pet-food,” she says.

“On the consumer end however, the biggest drawback will be the cost. Currently, pet owners are predominantly unwilling to commit to more sustainable choices for their pets with 81% globally saying they hadn’t bought environmentally friendly/ethical pet-care products between April and June 2023.

“The number one reason cited for this was that sustainable pet products are deemed too expensive. That said, Bene Meat’s claim that its cultured pet food is competitively priced against traditional pet food could be a breakthrough in the market.”

If the producers, investors and analysts are right, the noise surrounding cultivated meat soon may well be dogs and cats voicing their approval.