Lab-grown meat approximates American dishes
Executives at farmed-meat companies are optimistic that meat grown in massive steel tanks could be on the list within months, after one company got the go-ahead from a major regulator. As a sign of confidence, some of them have signed up with high-profile chefs such as Argentinian Francis Mallmann and Spaniard Jose Andres to offer meat in their high-end restaurants.
But five executives told Reuters that getting to its final destination – supermarket shelves – cultured meat faces significant hurdles. Companies need to attract more funds to increase production, allowing them to offer beef steaks and chicken breasts at affordable prices. Along the way, they must overcome some consumers’ reluctance to even try lab-grown meat.
Cultured meat is derived from a small sample of cells taken from cattle, which is then fed nutrients, grown in huge steel vats called bioreactors, and turned into something that tastes like a real piece of meat.
Only one country, Singapore, has so far approved retail sale of this product. But the United States is about to follow suit. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declared in November that the cultured meat product—a chicken breast raised by California-based UPSIDE Foods—was safe for human consumption.
UPSIDE officials told Reuters that UPSIDE now hopes to be able to offer its products to restaurants by 2023 and grocery stores by 2028.
UPSIDE has not yet been inspected by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and has received agency approval for its labeling. A USDA FSIS spokesperson declined to comment on the inspection schedule.
A house without slaughter.
At the UPSIDE Emeryville, Calif., facility, workers in lab coats were seen checking touchscreens and observing giant vats of water mixed with nutrients during a recent visit by Reuters. The meat is harvested and processed in a room that general manager Uma Valeti calls a “house without a slaughterhouse,” where it is inspected and tested.
Reuters reporters received a sample of UPSIDE chicken during the visit. It tasted like traditional chicken when cooked, but was a little thinner and had a more beige color when cooked.
Valetti told Reuters that UPSIDE worked with the Food and Drug Administration for four years before receiving agency approval in November.
“This is a defining moment for the industry,” he said.
California-based cultured meat company GOOD Meat already has a pending FDA filing that was not previously reported. Company executives told Reuters that two other companies, Netherlands-based Mosa Meat and Israel-based Believer Meats, said they were in talks with the agency.
The FDA declined to provide details about pending cultured meat orders, but confirmed that it is in discussions with several companies.
Executives from UPSIDE, Mosa Meat, Believer Meats and GOOD Meat told Reuters that regulatory approval is only the first hurdle in making cultured meat accessible to a wide range of consumers.
The biggest challenge facing the companies, the executives said, is developing the emerging supply chain for the nutrient jigsaw to feed the cells and massive bioreactors needed to mass produce cultured meat.
At the moment, production is limited. The UPSIDE facility has the capacity to produce 400,000 pounds of cultured meat annually — a fraction of the 106 billion pounds of conventional meat and poultry produced in the United States in 2021, according to the North American Meat Institute, a meat industry lobby group. .
Josh Tetrick, co-founder of GOOD Meat, said that if companies fail to secure the funds needed to scale production, their product may never reach a price that allows it to compete with conventional meat.
“Selling is not the same as selling a lot,” Tetrick said. “Until we, as a company, and other companies build large-scale infrastructure, it will still be very small.”
challenges on a large scale
The farmed-meat sector has so far garnered nearly $2 billion in investment worldwide, according to data compiled by the Good Food Institute (GFI), a research group focused on alternatives to conventional meat.
But Tetrick said it would take hundreds of millions of dollars for GOOD Meat, for example, to build bioreactors of the size needed to produce its meat on a large scale.
To date, investments in the industry have been led by venture capitalists and major food companies such as JBS SA, Tyson Foods Inc, Archer-Daniels-Midland Co.
The company’s investments in cultured meat are “aligned with our efforts to build a diverse global food portfolio of traditional, plant-based and alternative protein products,” said Nikki Richardson, a spokeswoman for JBS.
Tyson did not respond to a request for comment. ADM declined to comment.
Much of that money has been funneled into the United States, the number one target for cultured meat makers because of their size and wealth, said Jordan Bar-Am, a McKinsey & Company partner focused on alternative proteins.
Some companies are ramping up production in the US even before their products are approved by regulators.
Believer Meats plans to build a facility in North Carolina, scheduled for commissioning in early 2024, that can produce 22 million pounds of meat annually, CEO Nicole Johnson Hoffman said. As for GOOD Meat, it plans to increase its production in California and Singapore to 30 million pounds annually.
The European Union, Israel and other countries are also working on regulatory frameworks for cultured meat, but have not yet approved a product for human consumption.
Farmed meat companies plan to convince consumers that their products are greener and more ethical than conventional cattle, while trying to overcome some buyers’ aversion to their products.
For one thing, their product does not involve the slaughter of animals, which the companies hope will make the product attractive to people who avoid meat for ethical reasons. Company executives told Reuters that the animals were not harmed in the cell collection process.
Another benefit is that growing meat in a steel enclosure instead of in a field can reduce the environmental impact of livestock, which is responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions through meat production. Belching – according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
Vegan meat companies have also won over consumers with ethical and environmental claims, even though the sector accounts for just 1.4% of the meat market, according to the GFI report.
But cultured meat companies have the advantage of being able to claim their products are real meat, Mr. Tetrick said.
“Probably the most important thing we’ve learned is that people really like meat. And they probably won’t eat much less of it,” he said.
Many people put off eating cultured meat, said Janet Tomiyama, a health psychologist at UCLA who studies human diets.
In a 2022 study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, it found that 35% of meat eaters and 55% of vegetarians would be very sensitive to the experience of cultured meat.
She added that some people may view meat as “unnatural” and have a negative attitude towards it even before trying it.
To attract reluctant buyers, Tetrick, whose company has sold its product to restaurants in Singapore, said they need to be as clear as possible about how their products are made and whether they are safe to eat.
“You have to be transparent about it, but in a way that’s still appetizing,” he said.
UPSIDE Foods and GOOD Meat plan to tantalize American tastes by first marketing their products in high-end restaurants once approved, they told Reuters, betting consumers in those countries will charge a higher price and have a good first impression of their meat.
CEO Valetti said UPSIDE hopes to bring its products to grocery stores within the next three to five years.
Major supermarket chains in the United States did not respond to Reuters requests for comment.
Restaurant owner Anders, known for his work on global food security, told Reuters he wanted to sell cultured meat because of its environmental benefits.
“We can see from what is happening all around us, in every country in the world, that our planet is in crisis,” he said.
Chef Mallmann, who is known for preparing meats and other foods over open flames, told Reuters he was also influenced by environmental considerations and saw the role of chefs as making the product more tastefully appealing and less scientific.
“We have to add romance to it,” he said.