In 2013, two people tasted a burger made from cultured meat live on the air, and for many, it was their first introduction to lab-grown meat and the researchers creating it. The two were tasked with trying this first cultured burger and giving their honest thoughts on how it tasted, how it felt and how it compared to a typical burger. One noted "some intense taste" while the second said, "The texture, the mouthfeel has a feel like meat." Both pointed out that the lack of fat in the burger made it a little dry, but overall the consensus was that it was very close to traditional meat. Now, less than five years later, no fewer than seven companies are developing cultured meat to bring it to the market, some aiming to sell products as early as this year.
For some, cultured meat is a tech triumph, for others it's a cool new food and for many, it offers a way to help address some pretty major food and environmental challenges or maybe even save the world. But it's also a fundamental break from how we've always interacted with meat. Eating meat has always meant the death of an animal in some way or another, but with cultured meat, that's no longer the case. And while that's pretty awe-inspiring, it's also, let's face it, really weird. Whether cultured meat becomes a commercial reality this year or a decade down the road, it's likely on its way, so it seems wise to figure out what people think of it, how to get people to trust it and ultimately, how to sell it.
Cultured meat is meat. Its journey onto your plate might be drastically different from that of the meat we eat now, but regardless of its history, it is, in fact, meat. Scientists start with what are known as satellite cells -- cells that can develop into muscle cells -- and provide them with all the nutrients they need to live and develop. Throw some edible material in there that acts as scaffolding on which the cells can grow, make sure there's the optimal amount of movement and the correct temperature, and eventually you have meat that can be cooked and eaten just like any pork, beef or chicken you get from the store today. That's a simplification of a complicated process that scientists are still refining, but that's essentially it. Try to do what happens naturally, but do it outside of an animal.
Plenty think that a good product at the right price will sell itself. "I think the most important thing we're doing, and the primary thing we're doing, is just putting our heads down and trying to make something that's really good," Josh Tetrick, CEO of Just (formerly Hampton Creek), said. And Bruce Friedrich, executive director of the Good Food Institute (GFI), a nonprofit organization that helps companies bring their cultured meat and plant-based products to market, thinks the merits of the foods will be enough to get people on board. "Clean meat gives you everything that people get from eating meat, or want from eating meat, from live animals but without the things people prefer not to think about," he said. "It is a product that really sells itself."
PETA has been a backer of cultured-meat research for decades, and President Ingrid Newkirk has no doubt that it's on the way. "It's going to happen. Younger people are very excited about it. It's new. It makes sense. It's not your grandpa's idea of what you eat," she said. "It's going to happen. No worry at all."
There will surely be people who jump on the cultured-meat bandwagon early on and avidly, but there will certainly be people who need more convincing. Just a few months ago, when talking to the team behind Finless Foods, a startup working on developing cultured-fish products, we also asked some individuals if they would eat fish grown in a lab. One person said she probably wouldn't. Another said she definitely wouldn't. When asked why, she said, "Because that's disgusting." And she's far from the only person who thinks that.
Again, cultured meat requires you to reassess everything you know about meat. It introduces a new set of rules, and regardless of whatever positive impact it may have on the environment, animal welfare or sustainability, it may take some time to adjust to. But there are a few groups working to explore these foods as well as how people will react to and interact with them going forward. And while they all take different approaches, they all explore these foods in relation to what people currently accept as normal. They're looking at what's acceptable, what's familiar and what are people OK with and then asking, "Now, how does cultured meat fit in?"
As a kid, Mike Lee was interested in auto shows and, in particular, concept cars. It was an industry that presented a tangible idea of what its future products might be, and to him, that was fascinating. When he started his career in food, Lee went to trade shows and was excited to see how people imagined the future of food. "I remember going to one of the early trade shows, kind of expecting to see like, 'Oh, my gosh, I'm gonna see the future of food here,' and then I didn't," said Lee. "I wanted to make sure there was always a space for people to dream a lot more aggressively and view that in a way that hopefully inspires how people are innovating more-straightforward things today." That led to The Future Market.
Like the concept cars of auto shows, The Future Market presents concept food products. It tries to develop around six new products each year. Some of those products are devices like Nanobrew, a home brewing kit that uses wild, airborne yeast to produce beer; AnalyzeMe, a pill that can track and report on your microbiome; and Mini Mill, a small countertop mill that lets you make your own flour at home. Others are foods with a focus on sustainable farming. Crop Crisps, for example, are crackers that come in four flavors, but each flavor comes out every four years since the main cracker ingredient -- hard red wheat, white winter wheat, lentils or chickpeas -- is grown on a rotation that allows the farm's soil to be replenished with the right balance of nutrients. And Alga Marina is pasta made from holistically farmed seaweed.
And of course, there's cultured meat. Heritage Culture offers premium cuts of Kobe and wagyu beef, all grown through cellular agriculture, while Faux Fin allows for guilt-free consumption of shark fin soup, since the shark meat has been cultured. And then there's Jia Rou Canting, a Chinese restaurant that cultures its own meat in an in-house bioreactor and offers cultured meat alongside traditional meat on its menu.
To be clear, none of these things currently exist. They offer a glimpse into what could be on our shelves and on our plates in the near future. And importantly, they do it by taking a step into the future while keeping one foot anchored in the familiar. "I think the whole Chinese food menu is really kind of the epitome of what we think is necessary to get people over the hump," said Lee. "Which is, they need some sort of anchor in the familiar, because when everything is crazy, it just throws your brain into a loop. So for that we try to say, 'How do we make this idea, which is so fantastical and almost science fiction-like, as boring as possible in a good way?'"
The Future Market's concept products are also introduced to people in a concept pop-up grocery store that the company has brought to the Fancy Food trade show over the past couple of years. One option for customers who visit the concept store is a way to customize their grocery order based on the issues and concerns that are most important to them. Through a series of questions, they're asked about things like whether they're more inclined to choose foods that reduce their weight or reduce global warming, if they're more interested in savings or supporting sustainable farming, and if they want Michelin-star flavors or fast food prices. Their answers are then used to map their food interests, and products that appeal to their main concerns are collected. As mentioned before, these products don't exist and can't actually be purchased, but people can experience what it might be like to shop for them in the future by picking what they want, ordering it and having it theoretically shipped to their homes.
Lee said the people who've stopped by take their time looking through the products and seem to try to absorb what it might be like to see such items in real stores. "It gets them to question their values," said Lee. "Things like Faux Fin, which is the cell-ag shark fin soup -- it kind of throws your whole value system out of whack, right? If you're a person who's trained to say, 'I don't eat shark fin soup because it's cruel to sharks,' but you remove that whole cruel-to-sharks part out of the equation, what does that do to what you think about shark fin soup?"
The Institute for the Future (IFTF) takes a similar approach, providing examples of possible future-food products and technologies, all rooted in the familiar. As part of its Artifact from the Future project, IFTF developed Lunchabios -- a Lunchables-type product that allows kids to culture their own cheese -- as well as an incentivized receipt that notes discounts earned by buying sustainably sourced foods.
"What's interesting about the artifacts is that of course they don't exist today," said Rebecca Chesney, a research director at IFTF, "but they're kind of like a puzzle where we've layered together things that do exist." One artifact introducing a future with cultured meat is Churchill's Carnery. "It's basically imagining a brewery of the future, but the brewery is not for beer, it's for meat," said Chesney. And its name is inspired by a 1931 Winston Churchill essay entitled "Fifty Years Hence," which reads, "We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium."
"If you're a person who's trained to say, 'I don't eat shark fin soup because it's cruel to sharks' ... what does [using cultured meat] do to what you think about shark fin soup?"
Like The Future Market, IFTF offers people a way to experience the future of food firsthand through its Edible Futures events, which present new foods to people in an educational dining experience. Chesney said that it gets those who attend to think about these foods and realize they might be open to eating them in the future.
While The Future Market and IFTF are taking familiar products and pushing them a few steps toward the future, Oron Catts confronted the familiarity of food with the idea of cultured meat nearly a decade before that first cultured beef burger was eaten on live TV. And he did so using a fairly different method. Catts is the director of SymbioticA, part of the Centre of Excellence in Biological Arts at the University of Western Australia, and in 2003, he created an art exhibition called Disembodied Cuisine, an installation that put cultured frog meat on display and ended with it being cooked and eaten. According to the Tissue Culture and Art Project website, the exhibit "played on the notion of different cultural perceptions of what is edible and what is foul."
So even in its earliest days, cultured meat has been introduced to the public by situating it in or putting it up against what is comfortable and what is familiar. It's an interesting and active way to gauge how people feel about something they can't yet buy. And it offers the chance to surface and maybe even address their concerns before they're faced with them at an actual store or a restaurant.
However, it might also be important to take a look at the ways in which cultured meat strays from what's considered normal. "Cultured meat just isn't normal," said Ben Wurgaft, an anthropology postdoctoral fellow at MIT. "It's not. There are all kinds of technical reasons why this is not normal." Wurgraft believes that it's important to highlight and discuss the differences between cultured and traditional meat because burying them does the consumer a disservice. Because there are differences and they should be talked about. Otherwise consumers, the people these products are entirely intended for, could feel swindled. They deserve to know how their food was made and how it got to their plate. That's especially true for something as groundbreaking as cultured meat. Transparency about such a large departure from the norm will be crucial to its success.
"I think that it would really be beneficial for anyone who's involved in the food system, whether they're working on these technologies or not, to really be open about what's happening so that people feel like they can make the decisions themselves and they don't feel like they've been duped," said Chesney.
When it comes to transparency, the companies developing cultured meat recognize the importance of it. "I think having a really open and honest conversation about what this technology is is extremely important," said Selden. In that interest, he tries to talk to people about cultured-meat technology as much as he can, whether that be to the media or at conferences. Mark Post, whose Maastricht University lab was behind that first cultured burger, spun out his research into Mosa Meat and has continued to participate in the university's annual conference on cultured meat. And Memphis Meats, which declined an interview for this piece, updates its website with images and videos of its ongoing product tastings.
But these companies, which are all working to develop commercially available products, have proprietary secrets that they have to keep under wraps. And while that hasn't prevented many of them from discussing cultured meat, it has kept them from giving us a solid look at their progress and their technology.
Wurgaft, who's working on a book about the effort to create cultured meat, said he's not one to assume it's right around the corner. "You have interested parties telling us that they've made progress, and they may have resolved some of the basic technical problems," he said. "But at present we have no way of really confirming this." He argues that the closed nature of this industry makes it hard to instill trust.
"It's hard to establish not just public trust but trust of people like myself if you can't tell us the full story about what's happening in labs," said Wurgaft. "I understand completely that they can't because of the nature of their responsibility to investors. And my beef isn't with the venture capital system itself, rather with its promissory character: We're saddled with stories and promises that we can't confirm, so we don't know how much hope to invest in them."
"We're saddled with stories and promises that we can't confirm, so we don't know how much hope to invest in them."
Where cultured-meat companies can't fully deliver, independent groups have stepped in. New Harvest, a nonprofit organization that funds cultured-meat and cellular-agriculture research, agrees that openness and transparency are necessary. It makes an effort to host honest discussions about the technology, its limitations and what it realistically can offer here and now. Erin Kim, New Harvest's communications director, said that misrepresenting the success of current technologies "just creates a disconnect between the public understanding of where the science is and where the products are versus the reality of it." She added, "I think that we should always maintain a critical eye to these things as well, and I don't think that this field should be afraid to critique itself and to be critiqued. We are definitely coming from a place of recognizing that there's still so much science that is yet to be done and that a lot of the conversation right now is still very speculative."
New Harvest currently funds six researchers working on cultured meat and offers smaller, shorter-term grants as well. One group receiving such funding is working on a bioreactor -- the device required to grow cultured meat at scale. "There has been all this talk about bioreactors for all these years, about how they're going to be like breweries and so on," said Kim. "Still, there was not an actual visible prototype of one of those bioreactors." But in January, New Harvest posted a picture of the research group's unfinished prototype, and the response was wild. "I think people were so excited to see, OK, this is potentially what one of these bioreactors could one day look like," said Kim.
It's not just academic groups that benefit from the work New Harvest does. Companies like Perfect Day Foods, which makes animal-free dairy products; Clara Foods, which is working on an animal-free egg white; and Finless Foods all have roots in New Harvest.
New Harvest's academic and open approach to cultured meat is shared by another group on the other side of the world. The Shojinmeat Project, based in Japan, is a citizen-science cultured-meat venture that encourages anyone who's interested to try their hand at growing their own meat. People involved in the project are growing everything from seashells to sea urchin, and Yuki Hanyu, Shojinmeat's founder, cultured and tried foie gras with a few other amateur meat growers. Additionally, in the spirit of open access, the group has published a cultured-meat recipe and instructions on how to build a small bioreactor at home, both online and in a comic book about cultured meat. "I appreciate the openness, because I think that there's still such a need for that that is unmet. And we're trying to fill those gaps with our effort, but the more other players can get in on that, the better," said Kim.
The need for transparency and openness in the introduction of new foods was a lesson learned quite deeply through GMOs. The technology was introduced and its products put into the food supply without a conversation with the people who would be eating it. To many, that felt like a trick. It looked like an industry was messing with their food and doing so secretively, and it led to a massive public backlash.
"I think a lot of the agriculture industry has learned lessons the hard way from the rolling out of GMOs," said Mary Haderlein, a new food and beverage strategist and principal of Hyde Park Group Food Innovation. "If you look at that history and you see what they did right and what they did terribly wrong, to kind of instill consumer confidence or nonconfidence, you just don't want to go down that road anymore."
"Not talking to the public about what you're putting into the food supply is a gigantic mistake," said Finless Foods CEO Mike Selden. "The backlash against GMOs was, in a way, warranted, not because GMOs are bad and not because GMOs are unhealthy or bad for the environment but because you're changing someone's food without explaining to them what you're doing. That warrants backlash."
Even those instrumental in bringing GMOs to the world realize that the lack of communication surrounding them at the time was a problem. About GMOs, Monsanto CTO Robert Fraley has said in the past, "If I could have do (sic) one thing differently I would have focused on communicating to the public."
With cultured meat, we're already seeing a difference. Cultured-meat products aren't even on the market yet, but the development of them has been in the news for years. Even if they can't give details on their own technology, cultured meat CEOs are talking about the products, answering questions and putting information in places where it's easy to find. Because secrecy about food doesn't do anybody -- consumer or producer -- any good.
And as Wurgaft pointed out, one more issue that will play a hand in cultured meat's success is trust. That can be hard to instill, especially with something as intimate as food.
The good news is that we don't have to rely on companies themselves to foster trust in their products. They should do as much as they can in that regard, but having an outside opinion from someone who doesn't have a stake in the game can often go even further. That's where regulation comes in.
Agencies like the USDA and the FDA lay out ground rules for our foods already, and while not everyone may agree on their process or their standards, setting safety requirements does offer some level of order and assessment on which trust can be built.
The bad news is that neither of those agencies has a plan for cultured meat yet. As of now, it's not entirely clear how the US government will regulate it, or even who. While a spokesperson declined to say how the FDA might regulate cultured meat, they said, "Given information we have at this time, it seems reasonable to think that cultured meat, if manufactured in accordance with appropriate safety standards and all relevant regulations, could be consumed safely."
While the USDA is largely concerned with slaughtered meat, it's still up in the air as to whether it will be involved with cultured meat. "USDA has not made any determinations on 'cultured meat' (i.e., animal species-specific tissues cultivated in vitro from livestock stem cells)," a spokesperson said. "FDA would need to evaluate the safety of 'cultured meat' first before USDA could make any type of labeling determinations and determine whether it meets the definition of 'meat.'" So for now it seems regulation, like cultured meat itself, is still being worked out.
While there are still so many unknowns when it comes to cultured meat, there is evidence that people are generally on board. A study published last year in PLOS One found that 65 percent of 673 surveyed US individuals would probably or definitely try cultured meat while only 8.5 percent said they definitely would not. And adding to the evidence of public support, in 2016, Israel-based SuperMeat raised more than $230,000 in an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. In an email, SuperMeat co-founder Shir Friedman said, "The crowdfunding was a way for SuperMeat to show potential investors, as well as the world, that there is massive public support for clean meat."
Tetrick said Just will have a nugget, foie gras or sausage on the market this year. Only time will tell if that's the case, but in the meantime, there's still one major issue for cultured-meat companies to address: What do you call it? "I think it's going to be important because there's so much interest in this, and so many people writing about it, and there's so much opportunity for confusion," said Haderlein. "I think they should all get on the same page."
GFI is a proponent of the term "clean meat." Friedrich said, "The reason we're using clean meat is that it didn't previously have a meaning in food. Then it's also sort of a nod to clean energy. Clean energy is energy that's better for the environment. Clean meat is obviously better for the environment. It also is just a cleaner product because it doesn't have any of the contamination or any drug residues or whatever that come with live animals." Selden told me that he believes clean meat is the most accurate. "It gets across really what we're doing here," he said. "We're creating something that is actually cleaner."
But not everyone is totally behind that term. "The main reason I don't like clean meat is its substantial, moral indictment of contemporary carnivory," said Wurgaft. "It's an effort to superimpose the logic of animal rights vegetarians on existing dietary practice. I also don't think it's clean, because I don't think that we know that it's clean, environmentally speaking."
New Harvest tends to use the term "cultured meat," and Kim said that's partly because clean meat can have different meanings depending on who's using the term and it can become an ideological issue that New Harvest doesn't want to get involved in. She also said that because of New Harvest's academic approach to the field, cultured meat makes more sense for it. "It may not be the most appealing term, but it's one that has been accepted by the scientific community," she said. "It's still the one that, if you do searches for academic papers, you're going to find stuff written about cultured meat and not clean meat."
Tetrick said that while he once stood behind clean meat, he's come to think that it might not be the best term for it. But he also doesn't like cultured meat or "lab-grown meat." "Most people, most of my friends, don't really have an understanding of what the word 'cultured' means, in connection with meat," he said. So now he's leaning toward just calling it meat and adding a description of what makes it different. He said that once it becomes more accepted, that's probably where the term will end up anyway. "When smartphones first came out, it was a smartphone, but today I don't refer to my phone as a smartphone. I say it's my phone," said Tetrick. "So I bet tomorrow, when it's normalized, we'll just call it meat."
Images: New Harvest (cultured meat); Getty Images/iStockphoto (meatless meat vessels)