As the world of technology continues to bring to life seemingly every science fiction film ever produced, it only makes sense that meat would eventually feel its disruptive nature. In many ways, this shift is long overdue. Animal agriculture is a dramatic resource drain accounting for more pollution and water consumption than any other industry. The loss of life, an estimated 56 billion farm animals each year, is staggering alone, but worse when one realizes this figure does not even include fish or other sea creatures.
Enter "clean meat," a disruptive new industry that seeks to replace conventional meats with plant-based and lab-grown versions indistinguishable from the real thing.
"Just as we need clean energy to compete with fossil fuels, clean meat is poised to become a competitor of factory farms," Paul Shapiro, animal advocate and author of the new book "Clean Meat," said in a recent interview. "Clean meat isn’t an alternative to meat; it’s real, actual meat grown from animal cells, as well as other clean animal products that ditch animal cells altogether, are simply built from the molecule up."
Below are a handful of startups racing to bring the clean meat revolution to diners, supermarkets and your dinner table.
SuperMeat, an Israeli biotech and food-tech startup, may be on the verge of disrupting the global poultry market. The company is at the forefront of developing a method for bioengineering cultured meat from animal cells. Its first mission: to grow chicken breasts without ever harming a single chicken.
"With more than 50 billion chickens slaughtered every year, we couldn’t ignore the potential to end that much suffering," SuperMeat CEO Ido Savir, a graduate of Bar-Ilan University in Israel, said in a recent interview. "There are also so many health issues associated with producing chicken meat in the traditional way – there’s salmonella and arsenic contamination, for example – so that’s something else that we can improve on. Our product is much cleaner and healthier."
In addition to millions in seed funding to develop its product, SuperMeat was also included in a recent $300 million trade deal between Israel and China to export lab-grown meats. According to Savir, Israel's embrace of vegan restaurants and animal welfare issues has played a big part in supporting the company as it prepares to enter larger international markets.
"In Israel, it really is all about the animals," he added. "People are very focused on ending animal suffering as quickly and efficiently as possible, which is why the vegan movement in Israel is also very supportive of clean meat."
Based out of Redwood City, California, Impossible Foods' goal is creating plant-based meat and dairy products indistinguishable from the real thing. Unlike other faux-meat products, Impossible's secret sauce is the way they engineer their foods at the molecular level.
"Six years ago it was only a hypothesis," CEO and Stanford University professor Pat Brown said in a recent blog post, "but today we know that by understanding and optimizing the molecular mechanisms that underlie the deliciousness of meat, we will be able to transform natural ingredients from plants into meat that outperforms the best beef from a cow – not just in sustainability, cost and nutritional value, but in flavor, texture, craveability and even 'meatiness.'"
One of the early breakthroughs for Impossible Foods was discovering how heme, an iron-containing molecule found in both plants and animals, contributed to the taste and aroma of meat. By bioengineering a version of heme found in plants, called leghemoglobin, they discovered they could essentially unlock the flavor profile of meat. Add in other ingredients like flecks of coconut fat, ground textured wheat and potato protein, and you have the delicious burger of the future. "Our goal is to beat the cow in blind taste tests by a substantial margin," added Brown.
Brown founded the company along with vegan celebrity chef Tal Ronnen from Israel and cheese maker Monte Casino from Le Cordon Bleu in Boston.
Impossible Foods' burger can presently be found in more than 400 restaurants in the U.S., with plans underway to expand into Asia later this year.
As for the taste, according to Jillian D'Onfro at Business Insider, it's good enough to make her never want to eat a "real" burger again. "A few bites in and I was convinced I could have been eating a real beef burger," she wrote. "Although the burger wasn't quite as succulent as what you'd find at your typical BBQ, it was still thick, tender and absolutely delicious, with the slight crunch on the outside an unexpected benefit."
Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown is so confident in the meaty taste and texture of his plant-based products that he's willing to bet the United States' top fast food chains will soon come calling.
"I'm very confident that's going to happen, because I think the consumer is turning so quickly," he told Entreprenuer.com. "We are not telling people not to eat meat – I think that would be a massive mistake – we're simply suggesting that they have a new type of meat, just plant-based. Once we break the code and get to the point where it's indistinguishable from animal protein, I think you will see that shift."
Beyond Meat's products include a variety of faux beef and chicken made from soy protein, pea protein isolates, yeast and other ingredients. Thanks to an early agreement with Whole Foods in 2013, as well as partnerships with some 9,000 restaurants and retail outlets, it's also one of the most widely available substitutes out there.
So what's it taste like? According to Elettra Wiedemann at the Impatient Foodie, it will smack your tastebuds like a regular burger. "If I had been served this at a restaurant or a friend’s BBQ, would I have any idea it was not beef? The answer: No, I would have NO idea," she wrote. "I’m serious. It was delicious and totally burger-y."
After a clinical trial spent manipulating stem cells to form healthy new muscle tissue for a heart, Indian-American cardiologist Uma Valeti had a thought: what if he could do the same, but for a chicken breast, steak or drumstick? Valeti subsequently transformed that epiphany into Memphis Meats, a San Francisco startup hard at work at commercializing lab-engineered beef, chicken and duck.
"If I continued as a cardiologist, maybe I would save 2,000 or 3,000 lives over the next 30 years," Valeti told Inc magazine. "But if I focus on this, I have the potential to save billions of human lives and trillions of animal lives."
At a gala tasting last year, Memphis Meats unveiled the world's first "chicken and duck that didn’t require raising animals." According to Emily Byrd from the Good Food Institute, the taste was nothing short of extraordinary. "The duck was rich, juicy, and savory," she told The Telegraph. "The mouthfeel was superb and tender. It was incredible to be eating the best duck of my life and know that it was produced in a way that is astronomically better for the planet, public health and animals."
While lab grown chicken, beef and duck is certainly in our future, Memphis Meats is careful to note that the process is currently extremely expensive; to the tune of thousands of dollars per pound. The goal is to reduce that cost substantially by 2021, when the company's first products are expected to enter the retail market.
"It's not crazy to think you might one day be able to brew meat at $2 per pound, $1 per pound," Ryan Bethencourt, an investor in Memphis Meats, told Inc. "At that point, we can replace pretty much all industrial meat. In 20 years, I think people will look at growing and killing an animal as bizarre."