Companies such as Memphis Meats, JUST and Aleph Farms have demonstrated prototype products but Dr Michael Dent, technology analyst, IDTechEx, asks when will the first products be ready including lab grown steaks served in restaurants.
In his report ‘Plant-based and cultured meat 2020-2030: technologies, markets and forecasts in novel meat replacements’ Dent explores the future of cultured meat, comparing it with plant-based meat, which has experienced a similar surge in publicity in recent years.
He says the idea of growing meat outside an animal has been around for a long time and even in 1931, Winston Churchill said by the 1980s “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.”
“Although his timing was off by four decades, his predictions are beginning to materialise as the world looks for new ways to feed its burgeoning population whilst overcoming the environmental problems of conventional animal agriculture,” said Dent.
In 2013, Dr Mark Post of Maastricht University cooked and ate the first synthetic burger grown from cultured animal cells in front of a room full of journalists in London.
The science behind cultured meat is well established, with major challenges including costs, scale up and regulation.
According to Dent, a sample of cells is first taken from a live animal and put into a bioreactor tank. Here, the cells are fed a nutrient-rich broth called growth medium that enables them to grow and divide, producing trillions of cells from a small sample.
Once enough cells have been produced, they are turned into developed muscle and fat cells through a process called differentiation and harvested. Standard food processing technologies are then used to form the final product – meat.
Unlike plant-based meat analogues such as those produced by Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, cell culture has the potential to produce meat products identical to those produced through animal slaughter, but more efficiently at a fraction of the environmental cost.
In its first three months after going public, Beyond Meat's share price increased by 500%, with investors and consumers inspired by its realistic meat-like products. Beyond Meat's and Impossible Foods' products are now available in fast food restaurants throughout the US.
Mosa Meat, a start-up founded by Dr Mark Post, claims a single cell sample can create up to 10,000kg of cultured meat, with the cultured meat process requiring 99% less land and 96% less water than traditional livestock agriculture.
Cultured cells double in number every few days, meaning cultured meat could be produced quicker than conventional meat – Israeli start-up Aleph Farms claims it can produce a batch of cultured steaks within three weeks.
“Investors have responded optimistically, with cultured meat start-ups raising over $125m since 2015 and investments growing by 85% between 2017 and 2018,” added Dent.
“High profile backers include Bill Gates, Richard Branson and Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who helped fund the first synthetic burger grown in 2013.
“Despite this optimism, cultured meat still has a long way to go before it appears on our dinner tables. The first cultured burger famously cost $280,000 to produce and, whilst costs have come down considerably since then, the price of production remains a challenge.
“The dominant production cost is growth medium, the nutrient rich broth used to grow the cells, which can cost around $400 per litre, with conventional bioreactors requiring up to 600 litres of medium to produce 1kg of meat.
“Cultured meat start-ups are investing heavily in R&D to reduce this cost, although it will likely remain a challenge for many years.”
Another major challenge, said Dent, is scale up. Producing cultured meat at commercial scale is extremely challenging – no company yet has a scaled-up facility or supply chains in place.
Whilst most of the processes used in cultured meat production are well established at a lab bench scale, few have been performed at scale and the technologies to produce affordable cultured meat at commercial scale, such as advanced bioreactors, do not exist.
As the industry is new, there is no ecosystem around cultured meat either. No potential partner company is investing in the R&D required to produce bioreactors, growth medium or growth factors at the required scale.
Cultured meat companies could theoretically do this all themselves, but this will be very expensive and risky.
The other major challenge facing the cultured meat industry is government regulation. No jurisdiction has yet approved cultured meat for consumption and regulatory approval could take years, especially in the USA, EU and China, which are likely to be the largest markets.
Approval in any jurisdiction is likely to require detailed safety data. No company has yet revealed any data about large scale consumer safety tests – it’s unclear what, if any, tests have been done.
“Despite the major challenges the industry is facing, some cultured meat start-ups remain optimistic. Josh Tetrick, CEO of JUST, claims its cultured chicken nuggets have been ready for small scale commercialisation since 2018, despite still costing around $50 per nugget, and could be released as early as late 2019, pending regulatory approval,” said Dent.
“Other companies are more conservative. Uma Valeti, CEO of Memphis Meats, has emphasised the importance of taking time to get the release right, rather than risking a PR disaster similar to the one experienced by producers of genetically-modified products – consumers are notoriously sceptical of biotechnology, especially within food.
“Regardless of companies’ intentions, it is unlikely cultured meat will find its way onto supermarket aisles any time soon. Instead the first products will likely appear in selected restaurants in a limited release, reserved for more adventurous and wealthy diners.”
The future of the meat industry will undoubtedly include developments in lab-grown meat. For example, CHEAT is an in-house design concept for the first UK fast food joint to serve lab-grown meat from design and innovation agency Echo Brand Design.
Appealing to eco-conscious consumers, the concept design includes the thinking behind lab-grown meat’s sustainability credentials, packaging and branding strategy.
Nick Dormon, founding partner, Echo Brand Design believes owing to the mounting food crisis, synthetic biology is the way forward, and we need to highlight the pioneers in this space, and what we can learn from them.
One example, he said is VOW, a start-up cultivated meat company founded by Tim Noakesmith and George Peppou, in Sydney, Australia, who took four weeks to produce a few grams of kangaroo in a lab after obtaining a tissue sample from a farm where wild kangaroos were culled.
The co-founders believe 3D technology will make it possible to create steaks and other shapes of meat in the future.
“We’ve reached the scale capacity in terms of creating food using traditional animal agriculture and we see that meat consumption is going to be rising and rising over coming decades,” said Noakesmith.
“We see this as a solution to the problems that are going to arise from the need to meet the demands of those markets.
“The best way to think about it is the same way we cultivate plants, you take a clipping from a plant and you cultivate it in a nutrient rich environment where it’s very much the same as where it was before, and it continues to grow more plants of its kind.”
VOW, which has received a $25,000 grant from the New South Wales government is awaiting approval from food authorities to get its kangaroo meat to market by 2022.
“VOW’s project illustrates the broader potential of lab-grown meat: turning exotic, hard-to-find fare into routine meals for adventurous meat eaters,” added Dormon.
“Eventually we could be growing ethical zebra or elephant burgers. This could be a significant shift for independent farms in the future and how they can remodel their offering to deliver premium products at a lower volume and higher margins.”